Woman checking the ingredients in beauty products. Alternatives Journal. Photo © Yuri Arcurs \ Fotolia.com

Not too long ago, my husband was visiting a factory as part of his job in sales. He walked into a building that was filled with black smoke and was greeted by the owner. He asked him what was being manufactured at this particular facility. The owner responded that they cryogenically freeze used tires, smash them into tiny particles to create a fine powder, remove the metals and sell the end product to the cosmetic industry for mascara and eye liners. Surprised? I’m not.

There are thousands of petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals lurking in commercial body care, skin care, perfumes and cosmetics. The industry is completely addicted. The reason for this addiction is pretty clear. They are the cheapest ingredients to produce and they do the trick, albeit minimally. For instance, a moisturizer needs an oil-based emollient to lock in water so a mineral oil or silicone is used. There is no value to the skin beyond that – none of the vitamins, essential fatty acids or antioxidants that are found in their vegetable-based counterparts. If a company decides to add an anti-aging component to a cream, they will simple tinker with more petroleum to come up with a synthetic antioxidant that they can splash on the packaging like coenzyme Q10 or vitamin C. It’s a cheap way of producing personal care products and it’s the norm.

It hasn’t always been this way. Up until the 20th century, people used ingredients such as rose water, beeswax and almond oil to moisturize. These ingredients had not changed for thousands of years until petroleum came along. The personal care industry went synthetic along with many other consumer goods, likely because it was so closely linked with pharmaceuticals, which are also made with petrochemicals. It should have been grouped with food instead, since our skin absorbs it and responds to nourishment the way the rest of our body does. But we only started to admit that substances get absorbed through our skin recently, with the invention of the nicotine patch. Before that, it was just a barrier that could be lathered exclusively in petrochemicals with no consequences.

By now, you’re probably wondering if it’s safe to use petrochemicals on the skin (even if they lack performance). The answer is murky. Some ingredients seem to be acceptable according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database while others are definitely not, with concerns ranging from neurotoxicity to endocrine disruption. One of the biggest issues is the contamination of formulas with the carcinogens 1,4-dioxin and formaldehyde. These ingredients will not be listed on labels because they are a byproduct of the manufacturing process and North American government regulations do not require testing for them. Johnson & Johnson, leaders in baby shampoos and lotions, have had to reformulate for the European Union to ensure the products there don’t contain 1,4-dioxin and formaldehyde but they remain here at half the cost to make. Apparently, this will change as of August 2013 as the company has promised to put safer formulas in place for North American children as well.

Another concern that has to be addressed is the persistence of these chemicals in wildlife. They get washed down our drains and end up in our water systems. Plastic micro beads (popular exfoliators) were recently found in three samples in the North Sea. These tiny pieces of plastic can accumulate in plankton, get eaten by fish and end up on our dinner plate.

Changing the industry back to its natural roots is a matter of reprogramming people’s minds. We need to look at our skin as an organ that responds to nourishment, not inert, potentially toxic chemicals. We need to look away from the advertising and packaging that says “I’m safe and I’ll help your skin” and become savvier about our choices. The personal care industry is actually the chemical industry and they have deep pockets to lobby governments and brainwash the public. Look for natural and organic products that you can trust or make your own with simple ingredients such as olive oil and lavender. Be wary of the big brands owned by huge conglomerates. They are the companies that are knee deep in the petrochemical industry and make their bottom line a priority over safety and performance.

Read the rest of this series: Parabens | FragranceTriclosan | Formaldehyde