I don't know about yours, but my mother likes to give me articles painstakingly cut out from the weekend papers. They can be about all kinds of things – in fact I can probably plot the course of my life by the contents of her clippings file – but those involving scary health facts seem to be perennial favourites.
The most recent was a feature from one of the Sunday supplements about the rubbish pedalled by the cosmetics industry. I read it. I worried about it. And then I started reading the labels on my lotions and potions...and worried even more.
The article featured an interview with Horst Rechelbacher, the founder of Aveda (since sold to Estee Lauder) who has pioneered "natural" cosmetics ever since his hairdressing clients started passing out in his salon. His mantra now is: "Don't put anything on your skin that you can't eat".
Anyway, the point is that there are lots of ingredients in the stuff we use on our faces, bodies and hair that are not at all good for our health. These include, believe it or not, lead, mercury, formaldehyde, arsenic and myriad other chemicals with complicated names that have been linked with cancer, reproductive problems and allergies. How can this be? Because they are cheap, they do what cosmetics companies want them to do - and because self-regulation allows them to get away with it.
So far, so scary. But are the tiny quantities of these ingredients in cosmetics really enough to harm us? The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics says they aren't on their own, but that it's impossible to test the long-term health effects of using several products together on a regular basis. If you think about the number of different things you put on your face, body, hair and teeth from morning until night every day you start to understand what toxicologists might mean by "bioaccumulation".
I am hardly a cosmetics fiend, and I counted 14 everyday basics, excluding make-up and nail polish. Then I started reading the labels, armed with a list of the "dirty dozen" most commonly used toxic chemicals (the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetics database is another brilliant resource that allows you to search by individual product while the book No More Dirty Looks has great suggestions for non-toxic alternatives). Here's what I found.
My body moisturiser (Palmer's), face wash (Simple) and leave-in conditioner (Keihl's) all contain methylparaben and propylparaben, which are used as preservatives. They are suspected hormone disruptors and may interfere with male reproductive functions.
My expensive shampoo (Aveda) has cyclomethicone, used to soften, smooth and moisten. It's another suspected hormone disruptor and reproductive toxicant that's known to be harmful to fish and other wildlife.
My face wash and toothpaste (Macleans) contain sodium laureth sulfate, a widely used foaming agent that can be contaminated with a chemical confusingly called '1,4-dioxane', which may cause cancer. Pretty much everything I use contained fragrance, which can also be referred to as parfum, both of which are catch-all terms that can include any of 5,000 ingredients, some of which are linked to cancer or can trigger allergies and asthma.
It may have been the toxins seeping into my brain or the result of the labels' small print, but after that my head started to hurt. The thing is, now that I know all this, I suppose I'm going to have to do something about it. First step, make like my mother and tell everyone. Check. Next step, clear out the cupboards, I guess. Anyone for a stash of delicious but deadly beautifiers?
Delicious But Deadly: Why Cosmetics Might Be Bad For Your Health