Every day, we slather ourselves with liquids, lotions, and potions-from shampoo and soap to deodorant and makeup. After all, most of us want to look and feel clean and to smell nice. It's not uncommon for a single person to use 10 or more personal-care products daily.
We don't usually think of our cosmetics as a source of pollution. But U.S. researchers found that one eighth of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal-care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, plasticizers, and degreasers.
Take a look at the ingredient list on your bottle of shampoo or hand lotion. Most of us would have a hard time identifying which chemicals in the typically long list of ingredients may be harmful to human health or the environment.
Chances are your personal-care products contain 'fragrance' or 'parfum'-often the last item on the ingredient list. Fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets so manufacturers don't have to disclose the chemicals they include. More than 3,000 chemicals are used to create 'fragrances', usually in complex mixtures. Up to 80 per cent of these have never been tested to see whether they are toxic to humans.
These fragrances are not just found in perfumes and deodorants but are also in almost every type of personal-care product, as well as laundry detergents and cleaning products. Even products labelled 'fragrance-free' or 'unscented' can contain fragrance, usually with a masking agent to prevent the brain from perceiving odour.
The negative effects of some fragrance ingredients can be immediately apparent, especially for the growing number of people with chemical sensitivities. For example, fragrance chemicals can trigger allergic reactions, asthma attacks, and migraines. Researchers have even found evidence suggesting that exposure to some of these chemicals can exacerbate or even contribute to the development of asthma in children.
Other chemicals may have harmful effects that don't show up right away. For example, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is a cheap and versatile chemical widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent last longer. But it is associated with a range of problems. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed it as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. Phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy).
Some research has also suggested that phthalate metabolites may contribute to obesity and insulin resistance in men. Health Canada has moved to ban six phthalates in children's toys, after evidence showed that prolonged exposure can cause liver or kidney failure, but it has no plans to regulate the chemicals in cosmetics. DEP is also listed as a Priority and Toxic Pollutant under the U.S. Clean Water Act, based on evidence that it can be toxic to wildlife and the environment.
Fragrance chemicals often harm the environment. Some compounds in synthetic "musk", which wash off our bodies and find their way into nature, remain in the environment for a long time and can build up in the fatty tissues of aquatic animals. Researchers have found measureable levels of synthetic musks in fish in the Great Lakes (pdf), and they've found that levels in sediment are increasing.
In response to the sensitivity many people have to airborne chemicals, a growing number of offices and public spaces are becoming "fragrance-free". This is a great initiative, but what are these and other harmful chemicals doing in our cosmetics in the first place?
Canada's regulations don't measure up to standards in other parts of the world. The European Union restricts many fragrance ingredients and requires warning labels on products if they contain any of 26 allergens commonly used as cosmetic fragrances. Europe also prohibits or restricts the use of chemicals classified as carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins in personal-care products.
The David Suzuki Foundation and other organizations are working for safer products. We're conducting a survey to raise awareness and to find out what's in the products people use every day. We plan to present the results in September, along with recommendations for strengthening laws to protect Canadians and our environment from harmful chemicals in personal-care products.
You can help out by becoming more aware of what's in the products you use and switching to products that don't contain harmful ingredients.