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In search of safe beauty products

The living’s green and pretty in Vancouver, again named “the most liveable city in the world.” Just about every cosmetic…

By Jenna Owsianik , in Facing Facts: A closer look at eco-beauty products , on March 11, 2010 Tags: , , ,

Picture from Flickr user kuuipo1207

The living’s green and pretty in Vancouver, again named “the most liveable city in the world.” Just about every cosmetic product comes in a greenwashed or health-friendly option: there’s paraben-free lotion, deodorant without aluminum, and nail polish sans formaldehyde! I’ve spent a year trying to pick safe, personal care products that work, and I’m still confused about which ones I should avoid.

Sarah Dickson, the body care buyer at Capers Whole Foods Market in Kitsilano, puts it to me simply, “I’d like to be able to eat all my make-up if I had to.” Our bodies absorb most of what we put on our skin, and we can’t always break down that material she explains. If it’s not safe to eat, don’t put it on you is the idea.

The problem is many people don’t understand the meaning of the often hard to pronounce substances found on long ingredients lists, let alone their potentially harmful effects. Health Canada provides a public hotlist of those ingredients restricted from use in cosmetics, which does not include the aforementioned offenders – parabens and aluminum – but does allow minimum levels of formaldehyde in particular products. This is ostensibly because Health Canada does not believe they pose a significant health risk, despite outcries against their widespread use.

Picture from Flickr user Katie@!

Parabens are a class of preservatives used to maximize a product’s longevity. They’re accused of causing hormonal disruption and increasing one’s risk of cancer. Check the label on your sunscreen or hand lotion to see if any ingredients end with –paraben. I’m guessing something likely does, or quite possibly, the chemical name is cleverly hidden by a natural sounding stand-in.

Aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly is another popular additive in anti-perspirant, and is linked to both reproductive and neurotoxicity. The bane of my past summer was trying to find a deodorant that didn’t contain this ingredient, and could at least stop me from smelling, if not sweating. My search failed, completely.

Formaldehyde, used in nail hardeners, is a chemical also associated with causing cancer and birth defects. It’s not permitted in aerosol cosmetics, probably due to evidence deeming it a respiratory toxicant. So, when you paint your nails, maybe try not to breathe in too deeply.

Some are quick to call this alarm bunk, saying simply standing outside and breathing polluted air is more harmful to human health than the personal care products we use on a daily basis. But, stay tuned! In the next few weeks, I plan on navigating through body care narratives to find out what truly matters when it comes to our health.


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