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The Ugly Side Of Beauty

By Dr. Jordan Shlain

“Vanity dies hard; in some obstinate cases it outlives the man.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson

In our world of competing influences, vanity often rises above common sense. Common sense, for instance, would dictate that you wouldn't apply beauty products that would cause you to look, or feel, worse. However, many common beauty products have ingredients that have been shown to be toxic and cancer causing, and it's difficult to know which ones are safe. 

The Cancer Prevention Coalition has an entire section devoted to toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, most of which come from the recent book Toxic Beauty: How Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Endanger Your Health . . . And What You Can Do about It by Samuel S. Epstein, MD (Benbella Books, April 2009).

Increasingly, we are surrounded by “organic” this and “grass-fed” that. We certainly all would prefer to eat foods that are healthy for us as individuals, as well as for the environment. So, why is it that we put chemicals on our face and body that we cannot pronounce? Only eleven percent of over ten thousand ingredients used in cosmetics and body products have gone through rigorous health testing. Europe has just banned over four hundred chemicals used in cosmetics as they were found to be carcinogenic. What is our FDA doing? What is the Personal Care Products Council (formerly the Cosmetic,Toiletry and Fragrance Association) doing to proactively look at the data? Not much. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website: “companies are allowed to use almost any ingredient they wish, and our government doesn’t require companies to test products for safety before they’re sold.”

Thankfully, the “green” movement is gaining momentum in the cosmetics industry, albeit slowly. The smart companies are embracing transparency and will likely take the lead in shining a bright light on the hazards of oil-based chemicals and hormone disrupting compounds. While beauty may only be skin deep, most beauty compounds absorb into the body and interfere with the highly complex chemical reactions that make up our internal physiology.

Getting Specific—How Bad Is It?

Many fragrances are considered “trade secrets” and include synthetic chemicals that are known to cause allergies. According to, “One in every fifty people may suffer immune system damage from fragrance and become sensitized, according to the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. Once sensitized to an ingredient, a person can remain so for a lifetime, enduring allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure.”


The amount of information on lead content in lipstick, contaminants in bath products, and the toxic trio (dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene) in nail polish is growing, as is information about numerous other common beauty product ingredients, many of which are not so pretty, so to speak.

In April 2009, the Safe Baby Products Act was introduced, which directs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate and regulate hazardous contaminants in personal care products marketed to or used by children—a sad testament to our government agencies lack of interest in chemicals for so long.

Being A Nontoxic Beauty

So what can you do to be proactive? First, know which companies are at the forefront of this nascent movement. There are a few websites that can help you in that search as well as give information about what to avoid and what to focus on. For starters, features a list of the more than one thousand companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, which is “a pledge to remove chemicals linked to adverse health impacts from personal care products and replace them with safe alternatives.” Also, the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database,, houses the most comprehensive safety guide for cosmetics and personal care products to be found. In addition to ingredient listings for over 41,000 products (easily searchable, no less), there is a handy rating system (by ingredient as well as product; note, however, that results are limited by the amount of research that has been conducted) to help you know which products and chemicals are believed to be safe, as well as which ones you might want to avoid.

One place you can’t particularly rely on is the label. For instance, phrases such as “all natural” do not guarantee that it is. Or, as is stated in an article on “Unlike the food industry, there are no legal standards for organic or natural personal care products sold in the United States. This means that companies can, and often do, use these terms as marketing gimmicks. For example, the top-selling shampoo in the United States is Clairol Herbal Essences, which until recently claimed to offer users an ‘organic experience.’ However, there isn’t much about this product that is either herbal or organic; it contains more than a dozen synthetic petrochemicals.” Price is also not a good determinant; toxic chemicals can be found in both cheap as well as expensive products.

More Than Skin Deep

Philosophically, we should ask the same questions about cosmetics that we put on our body as we do about the food we put in our body. The irony is that the products we use to keep us looking great today may cause severe damage to our internal organs and our skin in the future. In clinical practice we are seeing more immune system problems that cannot be traced to anything obvious—and the only place that non-obvious chemicals come from are cosmetics (that we choose to apply), food (that we choose to eat), and the environment (that we choose to live in).

If you want to live long, look great, and live well—less is more.

Dr. Jordan Shlain is the founder and medical director of Current Health Medical Group ( Dr. Shlain is an assistant clinical professor at the UCSF Medical Center and a medical economics lecturer at UC Berkeley.

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