Dr. Samuel S. Epstein has a bone to pick with the cosmetics and personal-care industry in his most recent book, Toxic Beauty.

While the sector of personal-care and beauty products continues to boom, Dr. Epstein’s says he’s concerned with laundry list of cancer-causing ingredients that are continuing to be unregulated by US government agencies (ie. the FDA). Interestingly enough, Dr. Epstein contends that since your skin is highly permeable and many ingredients contain “penetration enhancers” (ingredients that deliver the product further into your skin) while also bypasses the detoxifying enzymes such as in your liver where food is normally filtered, this all makes your skin that much more susceptible to even greater risks to chemicals than if you ate them.

He applauds some of our European counterparts (namely German-speaking countries of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland) since they can look at a product label and are educated on what’s safe to use, as opposed to US consumers who remain in the dark. “This lack of awareness among North Americans is one of the reasons why I felt the strong need to write this book.” His main point is while we are well aware and warned about the toxicity of  things like cigarette smoking, for example, we are rather misinformed and even blatantly uninformed about the health hazards of our everyday products. The silver lining he offers is that not only are these hazards preventable, but there are several ‘green’ and organic options popping up which are better alternatives to use, such as brands like Aubrey Organics and Burt’s Bees.

Reading chapter by chapter of different health hazards, including ingredients he marks as “hidden carcinogens” – which are unlisted ingredients that are posed as cancer-causing when broken down or when reacting with other contaminates to became such, as opposed to frank carcinogens which are straightforwardly labeled – I became a little paranoid about my own beauty products.  Some culprits:

Hormone disruptors

His list includes preservatives (such as parabens and triclosan), detergents, and lavender and tea tree oil. Dr. Epstein contends they pose threats such as breast enlargement, and weak estrogenic and anti-testosterone effects.

Fragrances

Perfumes and fragrances are listed as the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, and may be involved in causing asthma. He says this may be a clue as why one in ten people in the US suffers from bouts of asthma, compared to only one in 20 of the world’s population.

Lipsticks

I know, I wanted to shield my eyes as a lipstick/lip gloss aficionado myself. But many name-brand lipsticks contain detectable levels of harmful lead. In a 2007 study by the Campaign for safe products, they found 61% of the 33 brands of lipstick analyzed contained lead. The result is a slow poison, since lead accumulates over time. The worst offenders? L’Oreal Color Riche in True Red and Classic Wine. The bad news? Lead is not listed as an ingredient so it is also not subject to any regulation. It should be noted, however, that last summer the FDA declared that the traces of lead in lipsticks were minute and, therefore, acceptable.

Sunscreens and sunblocks

Dr. Epstein’s gripe with sunscreens is that it’s counterintuitive: not only does it encourage you to sit out in the sun longer exposing yourself to long-wave UV radiation (UVA), no sunscreen can provide protection longer than 2 hours. When choosing a sun-protecting cream, he encourages you to opt for a sunblock as opposed to skin-absorbing sunscreen, which generates free radicals (agents that break down molecules in the skin and accelerates visible signs of aging). Sunblocks on the other hand contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are highly protective. Bonus fact: a consumer alert from derms publicized in April 2008 warned that lip glosses act like a magnifying glass, allowing the lips to penetrate even more harmful UV rays of the sun. Just to be safe, mix lip gloss with zinc oxide for extra protection instead of using it alone.

The use of nanoparticles, or fullerenes in beauty products

In an interview with Dr. Joseph Mercola, Epstein calls attention to fullerenes, an unlabeled ingredient which are are highly stable, microscopic, hollow spheres that carry the active ingredients into the skin. He claims these pose an “extraordinary danger” to your health.  “Nanoparticles, because of their ultra microscopic size readily penetrate the skin, can invade underlying blood vessels, get into the general blood stream, and produce distance toxic effects, and we have evidence of this as including toxic effects in the brain, including degenerative effects in the brain, including nerve damage.” He calls out Perricone MD as a cosmeceutical line containing fullerenes in at least 7 of their products and a whole mix of carcinogens in other products of their line.

4 ingredients to avoid

There's a lot of ingredients he sprinkles throughout the book, but he says on page 208 that if you have to avoid only four make it talc (which is linked to ovarian cancer), titanium dioxide powder (note: in non-powdered consistencies it poses no health threat he says), sunscreens and certain dark hair dyes which contain many frank and hidden carcinogens.

One thing that made me scratch my head, on pages 152-153, Dr. Epstein lists favorable anti-aging ingredients, such as date palm oil for eyelid wrinkles and topical green tea cream for sun damage, and restylane which contains hyaluronic acid that has been shown to be both safe and effective. However, he goes on to also include Botox injections to that list (“[Botox] has been in use long enough to be considered relatively safe, but must be injected by a qualified dermatologist”).  I’m a little weary to be advised in favor of Botox, derived from botulism toxin which is injected in the skin to temporarily paralyze facial muscles…that too from a book entitled “Toxic Beauty.” Yikes. And let's not forget that researchers claim that Botox can cross the blood brain barrier.

The takeaway

After listening to Dr. Epstein’s interview with Dr. Mercola before reading the book, I was a little skeptical that he was only out to pick on big name beauty companies like Perricone. After reading the book though, I think there is a legitimate concern over the under-regulated cosmetic industry in the US. Also, I was a fan that it wasn’t all doom and gloom -- instead of saying bah hambug to all beauty products, Dr. Epstein instead provides alternative to safer, organic brands. He also provides a model that is similar to the UK model with modification to call more attention and inform consumers about cancer-causing ingredients that are not talked about as often (even citing studies such as the one phthalates which Marta also mentions in one of her posts). He also touches upon ingredients from nail polish to hair dye to air fresheners, although I do wish he provided more alternatives than the 19 brands he lists at the end of the book. I think it’s a well-intentioned effort that may be a good starting point in educating yourself in the discipline of toxic ingredients.

He ends saying: "Avoiding toxic cosmetics and personal-care products doesn't mean giving up any of the conveniences of modern life, it just means exercising some judgment. We have little to lose, and much to gain, from taking the time to be vigilant about what we put on our skin."