The Toxics in our Cosmetics

By Jenny Åkeson

Every morning I get into the shower, I shampoo and condition my hair and lather my body. Out of the shower, I moisturize my face with face-cream, dry my hair and put my makeup on. It is by no means advanced makeup. Some foundation, mascara and rouge. Voila, ready to face the day! I can imagine that many women have a morning routine similar to mine. Nothing spectacular about that. Certainly not interesting enough to write an article about. But, have you ever thought about what the products you use everyday actually contain? Well, I did, and what I found was not a pleasant discovery.

First of all, trying to interpret the ingredient lists felt like a lost call. I have no frame of reference  of what any of the ingredients actually are. Cyclopentasiloxane, sodium benzoate, CI 47005… seems like gibberish to me. But, I gave it a deliberate try and began my search. Let me tell you – my findings were not very reassuring. It turns out that my shampoo, lotion and deodorant contain butylphenyl methylpropional, which can trigger allergies. What is most noteworthy is that the substance is likely to be carcinogenic, mutagenic and have a negative influence on the human ability to have children. My Garnier conditioner contains BHT, which is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it disturbs hormonal systems. My Max Factor mascara does not even have an ingredient list, although I vaguely recall it was on the plastic package before I ripped it off. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that my products that are labeled “natural” and “Eco” seem to have nothing to do with using non-toxic ingredients. Since this discovery, I must say I feel quite uneasy and repulsed to apply any of these products to my face, body and hair.

Jenny picture
Photography by The Architecture Home

Why is this not a bigger topic of discussion? And why are these substances allowed in the first place? How can we as consumers possibly navigate in the jungle of cosmetics and beauty products and buy non-toxic products?

In the pursuit to try to find some answers, I continued my search. The EU seems to be a forerunner when it comes to regulations of dangerous substances and have so far banned more than 1.300 substances in cosmetic products. If you compare this with other countries like the US, with a regulation that is not anywhere near its European counterpart, this seems relatively okay at first glance. Yet, substantial flaws exist in the European law. Only 14.500 substances out of more than 120.000 that are used within the EU have been registered by the European chemical regulation REACH. The remaining +105.500 substances have not gone through a thorough health and environmental assessment. REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals and has the main aim to “improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals, while enhancing the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry”.

Jenny featured
Photography by Naturskyddsföreningen

Not only does this process seem to be slow, but the law also has further gaps. When the environmental NGO Swedish Society for Nature Conservation carried out a study of 22 products that contain allowed PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances), they found several PFAS substances that were not listed on the ingredient lists. Seven of these fall under the EU list of especially dangerous substances. PFAS belongs to a group of more than 3.000 substances that exist in all sorts of products and items we use in our daily lives. In fact scientists know very little about the possible health effects of these chemicals. When tested on animals, some of these were associated with negative effects on the immune system, reproductive health and thyroid hormone. What’s more is that endocrine disruptors fall outside the law because there is no legal definition for such substances.

Coming back to my labeled “natural” products; according to EU law, companies are free to label their hygiene and beauty products “organic” or “natural” even if there are no traces of organic ingredients since there are no regulations with regards to these labels. While this might not seem very promising, several large cosmetic companies among these L’oréal, H&M and the Body Shop have promised to phase out PFAS in their products after important lobbying by different actors, with the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation at the forefront.

I have now exchanged half of my beauty products. It was not easy, but I found some helpful tools such as EWG’s Skin Deep database, which gives easy-to-navigate hazard ratings. The Swedish website Surface has mapped out some of the most harmful ingredients to avoid. In addition, I now avoid perfume and fragrance by buying allergy certified products. My favourite so far is the Swedish brand Idun, which has an online guide describing what ingredients their products do and do not contain, as well as the implications of these substances.

But should this responsibility really lie on the individual? I find it fundamentally unacceptable that one needs to be either a skilled chemist or have plenty of time to be in the position to choose non-toxic products.

Nevertheless, even if I cannot feel, smell or see any difference with my new set of less toxic products it sure feels a lot better. My morning routine, however, has not changed much: foundation, mascara and rouge. Voila, ready to go!


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