YES! But How? :: Toxic Cosmetics

Toxic Cosmetics, Septic Tank vs Sewer, Recycling CDs, Microwave Safety



I've recently heard that cosmetics can contain harmful toxins that do not appear on the ingredients label. Is this true? If so, how can I find out if the cosmetics I use contain toxins?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review or approve cosmetic products and ingredients before they are sold to the public. Instead, the cosmetic industry has a voluntary, self-policing safety committee called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel.

The Environmental Working Group recently completed a study of 7,500 personal care product labels and found that only 28 of the products had been fully assessed by the CIR panel. This indicates that the voluntary nature of the CIR panel allows companies to market products that are poorly studied, un-studied, or known to pose serious health risks.
Some companies boast that the amount of chemicals they use in their product is safe; this may be true if people were exposed to only one product. However, most people use multiple products, which leads to an unknown cumulative effect. Little research is available to document the safety of repeated exposure and exposure to a combination of products.

As a result of this uncertainty, you may want to minimize use of products known to include potentially risky chemicals. Some of the ingredients of highest concern include: phthalates (reproductive toxins), glycol ethers (neurotoxins), and coal tar (a known human carcinogen). These ingredients may be in products that you use on a regular basis, such as lotion, hairspray, deodorant, menopause cream, hair dye, or perfume. Keep in mind, though, that the cosmetic industry is not required to list all product ingredients in their labels.

The EWG recently released an online, interactive report called “Skin Deep” that lists the 7,500 products they studied. You can use the searchable database, at, to find out what is in the products you use and look for safer alternatives. For more information on toxins in personal care products, visit

—Michelle Burkhart


Our septic tank overflows. Hooking up to the city's treatment facility is inexpensive, but I don't know where all that sewage goes. What about an outhouse? I don't mind going outside.

Things have improved since the bad-old days, when sewage was dumped directly into rivers and bays. Modern sewage treatment centers remove most pollutants, although some do remain in the water, and the systems sometimes get overloaded and flush inadequately treated effluent into rivers and estuaries. Then there is the mass of residual ‘sludge' remaining after treatment that may contain heavy metals and industrial chemicals. So one of the first things you can do, no matter what system you use, is to make sure you are using biodegradable household products.

Nevertheless, hooking up to the sewage system is not a bad idea. Septic systems are often worse for the environment than sewage treatment facilities. The sludge that accumulates in the tank has to be pumped every so often, so disposal remains an issue, and clogged leach fields are a common problem. In fact, these systems are a significant source of “nonpoint source” pollution, which the EPA considers the leading cause of water-quality problems.

The most environmentally sustainable option is a composting toilet, but they take some work. There are many kinds, but here is how a typical model works: A vacuum toilet uses a pint of water to flush waste into a holding tank, which is outfitted with air baffles and a heating system so that micro-organisms break down the matter quickly, creating useable compost. Every few months or so, you remove the compost and use it on ornamental gardens. Since the system doesn't need flowing water, your leach field is reserved for wash-water from your sinks and tubs (remember: biodegradable products!). Composting toilets aren't cheap, but they reduce your water bill and save you money on pumping fees. One potential drawback is that some states require permits and additional procedures to install one.

Incidentally, outhouses are a bad idea. Sludge collects in a cool pit far below the topsoil, where it can't properly decompose but can seep into ground water. (Sorry to disappoint you.)

—Darrin Burgess


Is it possible to recycle compact discs?

That depends on why you want to get rid of them.

If a CD is scratched, you can repair it with a mild abrasive like toothpaste. Using a lint-free cloth, wipe in straight lines from the center to the edge. Or you can send it to a professional refinisher like Aural Tech CD Refinishing ( They charge about $3 a CD, plus shipping.

If you don't like the music anymore, trade the CD in at your local new-and-used music store. But before you go digging under the car seat for your old CDs, keep in mind that they'll refuse scratched discs and any that are missing portions of the original packaging. And even if it's brand new they still might not need it. (There are only so many The Bodyguard soundtracks a store can handle.)

If trading is not an option, mail your old CDs to: Plastic Recycling Incorporated, 2015 South Pennsylvania, Indianapolis, IN 46225 (317/780-6100). They take old data CDs, too.

If you've received one of those annoying AOL promotional CDs, simply write “REFUSE” with a heavy marker over the address label and blot out your encoded address information. By law, the postal service must return it to the sender. (You can actually do this with any junk mail.)

—Darrin Burgess


We received several responses to our advice on microwave ovens (Fall 2004) that noted issues we overlooked. Here's an update:

Our advice to the reader who worried that microwaves cause cancer was not to worry—non-irradiating radiation from microwave ovens doesn't mutate cell DNA like radiation from X-rays or nuclear bombs. Microwaves, we wrote, simply agitate water and fat molecules to produce thermal heat. We did warn, however, that microwaving plastic containers (even those labeled “microwave safe”) can leach hazardous chemicals into your food.

But some of our readers would have liked us to report research suggesting that microwaves cause cellular damage and nutrient loss not found in other kinds of heating. In 1991 two Swiss researchers, Drs. Hans Ulrich and Bernard Blanc, reported that microwaved food has three effects on the blood: It decreases hemoglobin, impairing the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the body's tissues; it increases white blood cells, an indication of poisoning and infections; and it eliminates a kind of white blood cell, lymphocytes, that are necessary for the production of antibodies.

These findings prompted the researchers to conclude that microwaves severely impair your immune system. However, we aren't aware of any clinical studies that have replicated their results.

One reader also mentioned a warning, posted by the FDA, that liquids microwaved in small closed containers can “superheat.” This means that a liquid's temperature exceeds the boiling point without actually boiling. The slightest agitation produces a spattering eruption that can cause severe burns. Steam can also build up to explosive levels in closed containers, and naturally the container itself can be piping hot (did we mention plastics?). To be absolutely safe, don oven mitts and a welding mask and clear all children from the premises.

A final note: Putting Twinkies in the microwave will make all the creamy filling ooze out, and never, ever microwave a hot-dog—it is a veritable stick of dynamite.

—Darrin Burgess