Home Beauty Earthwatch: Green Grooming Can Save Your Skin – and Your Life

Earthwatch: Green Grooming Can Save Your Skin – and Your Life

21 min read

For years I scoured beauty counters in hopes of finding the perfect foundation that would cover my blotchy skin. I trolled through magazines and the internet, even stooping as far as joining an online chat that discussed the most popular beauty products. I was obsessed with make-up and skin care and would spend a fortune on single items in the hope that they would change my life in some miraculous way. They never did, but I kept on searching.

Then the day came when my lips started to sting. The stinging became worse and I started to panic. What was wrong with me? Had I eaten something I was allergic to? Were my lips going to fall off? The stinging then turned into numbness. I had no feeling in my lips whatsoever and the sensation was so abnormal that I became concerned. My thoughts raced as I tried to figure out what was causing the numbness. Baffled and very upset, I started to think that perhaps I had an unusual disease of the mouth and my imagination ran wild with far-fetched thoughts about what might happen to my lips.

And then it dawned on me. I remembered that I had recently purchased a new lip-gloss. I had only worn it on this particular day. It had to be the culprit. I decided to test my theory and waited until the numbness disappeared. I then re-applied the lip-gloss to see if the feeling returned. It did. Hence my obsession with each and every beauty product ended.

My numb lip debacle had me wondering; what is in these products that creates such a reaction? How could a simple lip-gloss cause such panic and concern?

The desire to be beautiful is not just a modern day phenomenon. For centuries, women have been putting themselves in harm’s way, all in the name of looking good and prolonging a youthful appearance. Medieval noblewomen swallowed arsenic and applied bat’s blood to their skin believing it would improve their complexions. In the 18th century, Americans believed that warm urine from young boys would erase their freckles, and in the Victorian era some women removed ribs to create the look of a smaller waist. In today’s modern era, thanks to increased technology, mass media helps to perpetuate the beauty myth. Seldom are beauty remedies shocking anymore as cosmetic giants around the globe play God with people’s lives for vanity’s sake.

Every day women are bombarded with messages about their personal appearance. Beauty is big business and it has spun out of control. We have forgotten to think before we apply and lather, blindly entrusting giant cosmetic companies to help us look gorgeous and keep us feeling good about ourselves, whatever the cost might be – monetary or otherwise. Many of us assume that if it’s for sale it must be safe. Yet some of these products are potentially dangerous, or worse – silent killers. Would you still use your favourite moisturizer if you knew that it was cancer-causing?

Worldwide, the beauty industry is worth approximately thirty billion dollars. Women spend thousands of dollars a year on products endorsed by large “reputable” companies and take for granted that their health is in good hands. High market competition leads companies to make false promises, and we gobble these up in hope of finding that elusive product that will keep us looking young. It’s time for a reality check.

A recent study showed that the average woman douses herself in over 126 chemicals every morning before she leaves the house. It has also been estimated that women absorb up to 2kg of chemicals through toiletries and cosmetics each year. This was an alarming thought when I considered that my morning routine usually starts with a body soap or wash in the shower, followed by a lathering of moisturizer, and an application of foundation, some powder, concealer, mascara, lip gloss, blush, and hair products.

For all the years that I layered myself in cosmetic gunk I never stopped to think about the potentially harmful effects that they might be producing. What I found out was worrisome:

Nail polish and nail polish removers – can contain Acetone, a dangerous neurotoxin that can cause dizziness, depression, headaches, nausea, lack of coordination, slurred speech and drowsiness. Nail polish removers may also contain Benzyl Alcohol that can induce headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and a drop in blood pressure.

Body perfumes – potentially contain synthetic chemicals that could cause dizziness, rashes, skin discolouration, violent coughing and vomiting. Some clinical studies have also shown that such synthetic chemicals may cause depression, hyperactivity, irritability, inability to cope and other behavioural changes. Ethanol, Ethyl Acetate, Limonene and Linalool are just a few other chemicals that can be found in some perfumes. Effects from these toxins include drowsiness, impaired vision, headaches, drying and cracking of skin, damage to liver and kidneys, reduced motor activity, depression and respiratory disturbances.

Some brands of lipstick – have recently been exposed for having a high concentration of lead. Lab tests done by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics discovered that many lipsticks currently available for sale contain this heavy metal. In fact, 61% of the top brands tested showed detectable levels of lead. Among those tested, the brands found to have the highest lead levels were L’Oreal, Cover Girl and Christian Dior.

Deodorants and antiperspirants – have been linked to breast cancer due to their aluminum content. Cancer researcher Philippa Darbre, PhD, of the University of Reading in England, has said that there is a strong link between the use of deodorants or antiperspirants and breast cancer. And a US study by Dr.  Kris MacGrath of Northwestern University found a similar connection. McGrath’s study, published in December 2003, divided 437 breast cancer patients into four groups depending on how often they shaved and applied deodorant. He found that the more zealous the underarm regime, the younger the women were when diagnosed with cancer. Those who shaved at least three times a week and applied deodorant at least twice a week were almost 15 years younger when diagnosed than women who did neither (European Journal of Cancer Prevention, vol 12, p 479).

Neither shaving nor deodorant use alone was linked with a younger age of diagnosis. McGrath suspects the aluminum compounds found in many products might be to blame. (New Scientist, January 2004)

Additionally, some aerosol deodorants use a propellant that contains propane, formaldehyde, methylene chloride or nitrous oxide that can have potentially carcinogenic, neurological and reproductive toxic affects.

Shampoos – can contain Benzyl Alcohol that is linked to headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, a drop in blood pressure, CNS depression, and in severe cases: respiratory failure. Some shampoos also contain Ethanol that can create fatigue, be irritating to the eyes and the upper respiratory tract, and inhalation of ethanol vapours can have an initial stimulatory effect followed by drowsiness, impaired vision, ataxia and stupor.

Soaps – can contain a-pinene which is damaging to the immune system and g-terpinene which can cause asthma and CNS disorder.

Other modern day “beauty wonders” include the use of human and bovine placenta in creams and hair products. Placenta is known to condition the skin and hair. But when used in personal care products, placenta gives the body an unnecessary and unbalancing hit of hormones that can wreak havoc on our systems.

Many of you are probably thinking that the number of products we use on a daily basis is not enough to be harmful or toxic. However, human skin is porous and absorbs chemicals easily. We actually absorb more chemicals through our skin, and the fumes that we inhale, than through the food that we eat. Studies have found that as much as 60% or more of products that we apply to our skin or scalp are absorbed by our bodies. These toxins quickly enter our bloodstream, giving our kidneys and liver a strenuous and unneeded workout. Considering this, it is not surprising that scientists have found many common cosmetic chemicals in human tissue. Industrial plasticizers, called phtalates, have been found in urine, and fragrance components like musk zylene have been found in human fat. Preservatives called parabens have been found in human breast tumour tissue and if you read the label on your shampoo, moisturizer, deodorants, cleansing gel, or toothpaste you’ll also find them there. Many of these man-made chemicals have a lipophilic nature, meaning that they combine with or dissolve in lipids or fat. This makes them bio-accumulate, resulting in prolonged exposure within the human body. So even if we don’t experience an immediate irritation, by using these products we are potentially polluting our bodies over time.

Man-made chemicals are not only dangerous to humans, they are also harmful to our environment. Seemingly innocent personal care products have a farther reach than first thought, so we are no longer harming only ourselves. Products that we use on our bodies end up in drains and consequently have been found in rivers and streams. Studies have shown that hormone systems in wildlife have been altered, potentially due to the chemicals that wash off our bodies. These changes have been linked to the feminization of fish and other aquatic life.


Wouldn’t it be better to be safe than sorry? Let’s take responsibility for the negative impact that some personal products have on our ourselves and our environment. Start by replacing your chemically-enhanced soaps, make-up and shampoos with all-natural, 100% biodegradable alternatives. There are many natural products available in health food stores today that smell delicious, feel great on your skin and do the job just as well, if not better than other harsh, expensive, and often gimmicky tricks. Some great natural brands to try include:

Miessence – these are certified organic products approved by one of the world’s leading certifying bodies: the Biological Farmers of Australia. They manufacture a variety of products, including skin care, hair care, body care, cosmetics and more. Available through Pure + Simple spa.

Ole Henriksen – is my personal favourite and includes luxurious body creams, soaps and sunscreens that are all made from pure, natural, high performance ingredients.

Dr. Hauschka – products use ecologically sound methods to grow the ingredients for their products, and all their products are certified natural.

Martina Gebhardt Naturkosmetiks – products use the freshest herbs and oils to manufacture high-quality skin care products and uses only pure, natural ingredients. They obtain most of their raw materials from certified organic cultivation.

As well, Burt’s Bees has some great lip-glosses, lip balms and hair care products. The Rocky Mountain Soap Company and Rivendell Soap Co,  both locally-owned, offer up a delectable range of soaps that smell irresistible and keep your body feeling soft and supple. For great hair care try Aubrey Organics or Prairie Naturals. These products are 100% natural, with no petrochemicals or sodium lauryl sulfate, and they use certified organic ingredients whenever possible in their formulas.

Homemade facial masks and scrubs are easy to use and effective. Try mixing honey with an egg and some powdered milk for a dry skin mask or mix plums with almond oil for a blemished, oily skin mask. Yogurt mixed with finely ground walnuts makes a fabulous scrub as does ground oats, brown sugar, aloe vera and lemon juice mixed together. It’s also important when choosing a hair salon to pick one that uses herbal dyes or chemical free dyes. If you colour your hair at home, try vegetable or henna based dyes.

How toxic are your personal care products? Rate them by tying them into the Cosmetic Database; www.cosmeticsdatabase.com

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