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Why You [Probably] Worry Too Much About Cosmetics And Cancer

Olga Khazan |
November 15, 2010 | 9:24 p.m. PST

Senior Editor

Is your lipstick killing you? Probably not.
Is your lipstick killing you? Probably not.

Last weekend, I threw out all my makeup. In one smooth motion, I swept a multicolored blush palette, a half-used bottle of mascara and a brand-new eyeliner in “Brushed pewter” into the trash.  

It was the dramatic resolution to a nagging worry I’d had ever since I began reading countless “beauty products cause cancer” articles in the health sections of newspapers. The final straw was when I typed the names of some of my favorite products into a Web site called the Cosmetic Safety Database and saw that some them earn a startling “7” (out of 10) on the site’s “toxicity scale.” Shocked, I swore off the offending goo forever. Until recently, that was the last thing I thought I’d ever do.

I grew up in the highfalutin Dallas suburb of McKinney, where girls wore heels to 8th-grade science classes and pancaked their faces with foundation in front of the bathroom’s fluorescent-lit mirrors. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup until high school, and once my mother lifted the ban, I exercised my right to “put my face on” with a fervor rarely seen except in overzealous 15-year-olds. 

Since then, I have worn makeup every day: to the office, to the gym, to the grocery store and even to bed on occasion. I never considered the health risks until I started reading about those fine-print ingredients, like retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone, that are found in everything from lipstick to deodorant and have been indicted as endocrine disruptors and cancer inducers. Just one Physician’s Formula “Blushing Berry” blush compact, for example, contains several types of parabens, a preservative that a study from the Tokyo Metropolitan Research Laboratory found causes lab rats’ cells to mutate.

And it’s not just my face I’m worried about. Most nail polish is laced with pthalates, which make liquids more flexible and adhesive. That might make for the perfect French tips, except that repeated exposure to high levels of pthalates can cause birth defects and kinks in the endocrine system, according to studies published in Environmental Health Perspectives. Vinyl flooring also contains pthalates, and in May Swedish and U.S. scientists found that families who live in vinyl-floored homes might be more likely to have autistic children.

If the reports are true, then for 10 years I have been bathing my body in chemicals that might be gradually building up a breast tumor, or that might cause my thyroid to go into a tailspin.

But only if they’re true.

The problem is, we don’t actually know what the long-term effects of pthalates, parabens or even fragrances are because it’s difficult to prove that an illness is caused by a specific toxin, let alone if the amount of the toxin in your lip gloss is enough to cause a problem. 

The roots of cancer, in particular, are notoriously hard to pin down. After studying mummy skeletons, scientists at the University of Manchester in England came to the conclusion that cancer is a man-made illness spawned by “modern industrialization.” But Andy Coghlan of New Scientist pointed out that nearly all of the mummies studied were under the age of 50, long before many cancers would have taken hold.

The problem of correlation and causation in medical studies can also make it hard to tell if environmental toxins cause a specific disease. For example, in 2004 British researchers found traces of parabens in the tumors of breast cancer patients. That sounds scary, but the study made no comparison to the levels of parabens in normal breast tissue, nor did the study determine how the parabens entered the body in the first place. Early puberty has been associated with pthalates in some studies, but it’s also been connected with eating lots of meat and childhood obesity in others. 

Alarmed over their potentially devastating impacts, European countries have started banning cosmetics made with parabens, pthalates and other substances. The United States hasn’t, partly because the U.S. barely regulates cosmetics. U.S. cosmetics producers are not required to test the safety of their products before they sell them. They can (but aren’t required to) self-report their products’ ingredients to a tiny subdivision of the FDA, and safety investigations into these ingredients have been pitifully lax.

But even with stricter regulations, there’s a lot more than just cosmetics that the government would have to protect us from. For example, when I was a kid I would use Saran wrap to cover my canned soup as I microwaved it, fishing out the melted bits of plastic afterward right before I dug in. But even that may not be as dangerous as frying up fajitas in a Teflon pan or sleeping on a wire-frame bed near a cell-phone tower.

The fact is, we take risks every day that we know are dangerous, and the brain uses clever tricks to decide which risks are worth it. We all tend to overestimate rare, strange risks (like getting a tumor from your eyeshadow), but downplay common risks (like smashing into someone on the 110 at rush hour.) 

Likewise, we pay more attention to man-made risks than natural ones - which explains why there’s more outcry over the construction of nuclear power-plants than there is over new swimming pools (where lounging in the sun’s rays can result in skin cancer down the line). And people also overestimate risks they hear about repeatedly, like the cosmetics-cancer news hype, rather than those that bear only brief mention in headlines.

The truth is, I don’t know just how risky my cosmeti-crack really is, and that may have been the very reason I rushed to toss it all out. A condition called the Ellsberg paradox (so named after Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who gained infamy by releasing the Pentagon Papers) shows that the less we know about a situation, the more we fill in the gaps with fear. It’s a mental shortcut that meant the difference between life and death when we were cavemen running from ominous growls in the woods that may or may not have been a deadly predator. But in the modern day, it manifests itself in our over-cautiousness about things that sound deadly but might not actually be. Reason and logic kick in only later, when we’re evaluating the risk as we stare into a trash can filled with Sunset Glimmer highlighting powder.

So what did I use to fill the void where my makeup used to be? Why, more makeup, of course. I looked up the products with the lowest-possible toxicity levels on the cosmetics database and went on an online-ordering spree. 

The truth is, I like wearing makeup, and people are less afraid of risks when the risk comes with a highly-valued benefit - like the convenience that driving offers or the “big eyes” look that mascara provides. That’s why living in Los Angeles - warm, glamorous Los Angeles - remains popular despite its earthquakes, traffic accidents and smog-induced asthma. And it’s also why I may not be willing to give up dewy cheeks and smoky eyes just yet.


Reach editor Olga Khazan here. Follow her on Twitter here



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