the ugly truth about the beauty industry

lmost every time I put on makeup, I think of my old college roommate, Glen, who looked pretty outrageous wearing high heels and a dress one…

lmost every time I put on makeup, I think of my old college roommate, Glen, who looked pretty outrageous wearing high heels and a dress one Halloween, along with some heavy blush and thick, blue eye-shadow.

Glen was the kind of guy who had a lot of women friends because he enjoyed women’s company and respected them.

He confessed to me one day that he thought women were lucky because we have the world of cosmetics to ameliorate our looks.

The following year, he married one of our roommates, a natural beauty.

More than 10 years later, thinking of him on those occasions when I wear makeup, I find myself wondering not only if it indeed improves the way I look, or whether that’s just an illusion — the result of cultural/media indoctrination — but also whether this ‘war paint’ might actually be destroying my looks or hobbling my health.

Sulfates, parabens, glycols, phthalates, DEA, formaldehyde, glycol ethers, phenylenediamine, toluene.

If you know what even one of these is, you are miles ahead of most us.

Even after researching several of them, I still can’t wrap my head around their complex purposes, their complex chemical makeup and their complex names.

These are all manmade chemicals and some of the key ingredients in the major brands of mascaras, deodourants, shampoos, soaps, nail polish removers, hair dyes, face creams and sunscreens, to name just a few in the endless line of so-called beauty enhancement products available at any given pharmacy or grocery store in Canada today.

At best, these chemicals are irritating our skin, causing many of us a misdiagnosis of eczema, psoriasis or adult acne.

At worst, they are causing infertility, birth defects and cancer.

One of the hottest new debates in the world of consumer advocacy is over parabens, a group of chemicals used as a preservative in cosmetics.

Parabens are used primarily for their bacteriocidal and fungicidal properties.

In shampoos, moisturizers, shaving gels, personal lubricants, topical pharmaceuticals and toothpaste, the bacteria and fungi drastically improve the possibilities of a long shelf life.

There is nothing quite as effective and cheap as parabens as a preservative.

But at least one scientific study linking the parabens (when used in underarm deodourant) with breast cancer has stirred up consumers.

And this attitude change about makeup is threatening to give the cosmetics industry a makeover.

Although there is no concrete evidence linking parabens with cancer, parabens have been found in breast tumour samples.

Officially, the cancer industry and the cosmetics industry agree that parabens in small doses on the exterior of the body (not in foods) are safe.

However, the European Scientific Committee on Comsumer Products makes the point that there is not enough data on parabens to decide if they are safe or not.

The popular reaction to parabens, as opposed to an official government, industry or scientific reaction, has led the way in this controversy.

A mass e-mail raised concerns and those concerns have led to a relatively significant shift in the popular consumption of more natural lines of cosmetics.

On top of a long list of manufactured chemicals designed to enhance the colour, smell and absorption of cosmetics are the incidental poisons, including lead, mercury, and DDT from the sheep’s wool used in making lanolin, a popular ingredient in skin creams.

Ralph Nader and the Cancer Prevention Coalition have a “Dirty Dozen” list of carcinogenic substances and about half of them are very specific cosmetics, including Cover Girl Replenishing Natural Finish Make-Up (foundation), which contains five carcinogenic ingredients; Crest Tartar Control Toothpaste, which contains three carcinogenic ingredients, including fluoride and blue dye “#1”; Alberto VO5 Conditioner (Essence of Neutral Henna), which contains three carcinogenic ingredients; and Clairol Nice ‘n Easy permanent haircolour, which contains three carcinogenic ingredients and has been strongly linked with lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

The final cosmetic among the Dirty Dozen is talcum powder, which it links with ovarian cancer, although it has been common knowledge for years that it has contributed to respiratory problems in babies who inhale it, and yet it is still marketed as a product for babies.

Quite simply, though, there are too many chemicals in too many cosmetics for consumers to keep track of.

The main point among some of the consumer advocacy groups that I’ll list here is that all of these toxic ingredients can easily be replaced with something non-toxic, and yet the manufacturers can be bothered.

And most shoppers have no idea this debate is even happening.

Here are some resources to help keep you informed.

National Geographic’s Green Guide ( has its own  Dirty Dozen, many of which I’ve already mentioned, including parabens.

It calls them “the worst of the worst” and offers a downloadable wallet card so that you can carry the list while you shop.

The Environmental Working Group ( offers a sophisticated Skin Deep database that lets you enter a specific cosmetic and see how it rates in terms of number of ingredients and any links to cancer or other health issues.

The Cancer Prevention Coalition (, chaired by cancer prevention activist scientist Dr. Samuel Epstein, offers endless reports and information on cosmetics and other manufactured chemical ingredients used in food and household cleaners.

Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.

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