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YES! But How? :: Toxic Beauty

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I hear that a lot of beauty products have harmful ingredients. But what are they, and how can I avoid them?

Safe Cosmetics Campaign

What's going on in your body? Safe Cosmetics took to the street to talk to people about the toxic chemicals lurking in everyday cosmetics.

The FDA does not require cosmetic companies to test their products for safety. As a result, you could find just about anything in your makeup drawer: mercury in your mascara, coal tar in your hair dye, or lead in your lipstick. Several harmful ingredients are toxic, prone to contamination, and linked to cancer, allergies, and birth defects. You don’t want lead in children’s toys or mercury in your seafood—so why would you apply them to your skin, hair, and face?

Since the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2004 launch of Skin Deep, an online database that offers safety information on 42,421 products and 8,363 ingredients, momentum has grown  to fight the use of toxins, carcinogens, and other harmful substances in personal care products. Groups such as Teens For Safe Cosmetics, tweenBeauty, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and Best in Beauty promote consumer education about product ingredients and have taken the issue to their legislators. In 2005, California passed the California Safe Cosmetics Act, which requires the manufacturer to provide the California Department of Public Health with a list of all cosmetic products containing ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, or other harm. Action has yet to be taken at the federal level, but EWG is collecting online signatures for a petition to Congress.

What can you do? Minimize your exposure to harmful substances by cutting back on some items or eliminating them from your routine altogether. Also, read labels to ensure the validity of often-gimmicky claims such as “natural” and “fragrance free.” Products so labeled may, in fact, contain fragrances to produce a more neutral scent, while so-called “natural” products may contain toxins, too.

Visit the EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic safety database online at to see what’s in your products. You can find safer products at

—Lynsi Burton

Send questions to YES! But How?, 284 Madrona Way NE, Suite 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 or to editors [at]

Lynsi BurtonLynsi Burton wrote this article for Learn as You Go, the Fall 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Lynsi is a YES! editorial intern.

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