Cosmetics Chemicals Found in Girls' Bodies

Study: Chemicals linked to cancer and hormone disruption found in the blood, urine of teenage girls.

Leah Zerbe December 1, 2008

The effects of cosmetic chemicals may be more than skin deep.

RODALE NEWSROOM, EMMAUS, PA—Chemicals associated with cancer and hormone disruption turned up in the blood and urine of every teenage girl tested in a recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The September report found that the teens tested had an average of 13 hormone-altering chemicals in their bodies. The chemicals in question are commonly found in makeup and body-care products; a questionnaire administered on the day of the blood tests revealed that the girls used 17 personal-care products that included more than 174 chemical ingredients.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers tested the blood and urine of 20 teenage girls, ages 14 to 19, looking for 25 chemicals often found in cosmetics. The teens involved in the study lived in different parts of the country and included white, black, Asian-American, and multiethnic girls. Tests detected 16 chemicals from 4 chemical families in either the blood or urine of the girls, including:

Phthalates, which have been linked with reproductive and developmental problems and an increased risk for asthma and allergies. They are often in products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient.

Triclosan, the bacteria-killing ingredient in antibacterial liquid soaps. Research suggests it can promote antibiotic resistance, which means some infections could start outsmarting our medicine. When it gets into the waste stream, triclosan can have a toxic effect on aquatic life. It’s also been linked to thyroid problems in people.

Parabens, possible endocrine disrupters and carcinogens; may impair fertility.

Synthetic musks, manmade chemicals used as fragrances and perfumes in many cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, and deodorants. Some have been linked to cancer in lab animals. “Musk” also refers to an odor some animals give off, but synthetic musks are made in labs.

WHAT IT MEANS: While the study is small and doesn’t prove a direct connection between the chemicals in the cosmetics and the results of the lab tests, it does suggest that cosmetics and personal products can add a chemical burden to the bodies of people who use them. According to EWG, teenage girls are particularly at risk from endocrine disruptors, which mimic or block hormone production, since they start experimenting with makeup, perfumes, lotions, and hair dyes just when their bodies are going through accelerated development. Phil Landrigan, MD, professor and chairman of the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has named endocrine disruptors as one of the top health dangers that young people face today (the other three are heavy metals, air pollution, and pesticides). Hormone-disrupting chemicals have been linked to reproductive problems and cancers in animal studies, and some are believed to mix with enzymes inside people to produce carcinogens.

If you want alternatives for yourself or the children in your lives, you’ll have to browse online or hunt through health food stores to find them. To start looking, check out Skin Deep, the EWG’s cosmetics safety database. And ask the makers of your favorite products to offer versions without questionable chemicals.

EWG scientists recommend avoiding products with these ingredients:
• Fragrance and dyes
• DMDM hydantoin and Imidazolidinyl urea
• Methylchloroisothiazolinone and Methylisothiazolinone
• Parabens or “-paraben”
• “PEG”
• Chemicals ending in “-eth”
• Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate
• Triclosan and triclocarban
• Triethanolamine (TEA)

EWG’s list of products to avoid:
• Anti-aging creams with lactic, glycolic, AHA, and BHA acids
• Hair dyes containing ammonia, peroxide, p-phenylenediamine, diaminobenzene, and all dark permanent hair dyes.
• Liquid hand soaps with triclosan
• Nail polish and removers with formaldehyde