A Wrinkle in Time

What happens when the beauty industry turns ugly?


By Allison Pavlick

We nip, tuck, tweeze, inject, and pour countless dollars into a multi-billion dollar beauty industry in our quest to freeze time. The idea of aging naturally seems primitive, an antiquated custom from a simpler time we’ve since evaded. Today’s youth-obsessed culture is hooked on a slew of anti-aging remedies and kaleidoscope-colored essentials, encouraging consumers to conceal dark spots and erase wrinkles. These age-defying products seem too good to be true, leading experts to raise red flags: could these beauty indulgences actually harbor an ugly reality?

Behind the celebrity endorsements and alluring packaging, harmful chemicals lurk. The principal culprit? Phthalates, a group of chemicals that increase the flexibility of plastics. The chemicals are ubiquitous in a number of household products, but cosmetic companies are particularly drawn to them for their oily texture and ability to retain fragrances. In the past decade, a number of studies have shed new light on the substance, and the effects are hardly skin-deep.

According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), a national environmental action group, phthalates have a number of harmful effects. The organization links the chemical to reduced fertility, birth and developmental defects, changes in hormone levels, and obesity. More alarming than their existence in products, which include nail polishes, lotions, shampoos, and cosmetics, is their presence in those who use them. The NRDC reports that phthalates are found in nearly 100 percent of people tested, but due to a lack of extensive research, experts aren’t sure how much is too much.

With over 80,000 other dangerous chemicals used in products on the market, phthalates are often overlooked. Still movements such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics urge citizens to take action by contacting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and avoiding products containing the chemical, but the noise is often static to consumers. “People are bombarded with messages,” says Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist for the NRDC. “They say, ‘Until the government tells me differently, I’m going to do my own thing.’” While the European Union has banned the use of six phthalates in cosmetics, the United States has taken little action to purge the beauty industry of the chemical.

According to Janssen, with current legislation in place, phthalates won’t be banned. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) doesn’t force chemical manufacturers to disclose ingredients in products. In the last 36 years, only five chemicals have been banned under the act. Before legislators can take action, an update to the TSCA, which will eliminate these and other flaws, is required. As a result, phthalates have been traced to an extensive list of name-brand beauty products such as Calvin Klein, Dior, Lancôme, TRESemmé, and Dove. Many cosmetics companies have quietly removed phthalates from their products, but the chemical still largely exists in fragrances. To reduce the risk of exposure, Janssen advises buying fragrance-free products. Some brands, such as Burt’s Bees and Ecco Bella, list their products as phthalate-free, but they’re the exception. The law doesn’t require companies to label which chemicals are in their products, so often it’s up to consumers to read beyond the fine print. Suddenly the idea of aging naturally doesn’t seem so primitive after all.