As the French saying goes: “Il faut souffrir pour être belle” –– one must suffer to be beautiful. Beauty might be painful, but is it worth dying over? The concoctions and lotions cluttering our bathrooms and bedrooms might not be as safe as we think. Recent studies examining the toxicity of beauty products, especially the toxicity of hair dye, have had troubling results. There’s also evidence pointing to harmful chemicals in cosmetics. So how dangerous are they? Are there safer solutions available, or do we need to get used to going au naturel?
The Price of Beauty
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is primarily responsible for testing and determining the toxicity of beauty products. However, the agency is mainly focused on short-term issues: does it cause a rash, irritate the skin or otherwise trigger an allergic reaction? The toxicity of hair dye is an ongoing concern. The FDA sought to repeal approval of lead acetate as a color additive in hair dye in 2018. Approved in 1980 for progressive hair colors such as in Grecian Formula or Just for Men, it was studied in the late 1990s by Howard W. Mielke, a Tulane research professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Tulane School of Medicine. He showed that the dyes designed to gradually darken gray hair had lead levels of between 2,300 and 6,000 parts per million. This can also be transferred to the mouth or hands during the application process. This FDA action has been delayed due to objections. Similarly the FDA’s ability to take action against coal-tar hair dyes associated with safety concerns is limited by law.
Researchers like Mielke are often more likely to discover the toxicity of hair dye and long-term cancer risk. Last year a study of twin sisters where one had cancer determined a correlation between hair dye use and the disease. The study noted that hair products contain endocrine‐disrupting compounds and carcinogens that can be linked to breast cancer. For women of color who are the primary users of hair straightener, the link was even greater because the products can contain more hormonally active compounds. The study observed a higher breast cancer risk for those who used the products. While it looked at nearly 50,000 women, the fact that half of the sisters were breast cancer survivors suggested an elevated genetic risk. On the other hand, dye-using sisters being diagnosed with cancer when non-dye users weren’t suggests that environmental factors may be responsible (since presumably both twins had genetic predispositions for cancer).
Considering that in many parts of the world beauty salons were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, home hair care has been more common in 2020. Researchers have seen a clearer connection between home hair dyes than ones used in the salon. This may be because women who do their own hair spend longer amounts of time with the chemicals. The treatment is commonly performed in a bathroom with limited ventilation. So finding a room with better airflow may be one solution. Non-permanent hair dyes are also generally safer.
Hair dyes aren’t the only culprits. In the United States, around 12,500 different chemicals have been approved for use in personal care products so it makes sense that some are worried about harmful chemicals in cosmetics. The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that some additives to cosmetics and other beauty products once included the carcinogen formaldehyde, mercury (which can harm the kidneys), and dibutyl and diethylhexyl phthalates –– which can disrupt hormones. In fact, one study linked these and some airborne chemicals along with pollution to early puberty. While the EWG points out that the chemicals listed are banned by the European Union, in the U.S. their prohibition has come from states like California and larger retailers like Target, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and CVS Health. Women concerned with the toxicity of beauty products who aren’t fans of the “natural” look should do their best to educate themselves –– reading labels and learning about products’ safety through reliable online guides like EWG’s ranking of safe hair dyes and cosmetics.
- Potential for human exposure: toxicological profile for lead:
- Hair Dyes.
- Hair dye and chemical straightener use and breast cancer risk in a large US population of black and white women.
- The toxic twelve chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics.
- A systematic review on the effects of environmental exposure to some organohalogens and phthalates on early puberty.
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.