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The Toxic Treatment: Harmful Chemicals in Canadian Cosmetics

By Sandra Madray, PCN Board Member

Moisturizers, conditioners, hair dyes, lipstick, nail polish, perfumes and soaps: all of these are cosmetics – and some are hard to avoid. Canadians spend at least $5.3 billion on cosmetics annually, and yet we give very little thought to the long-term health effects of the ingredients in our morning lather.

Health Canada regulates cosmetic ingredients through The Cosmetic Regulations under the Food and Drug Act and a ‘Hotlist’ containing more than 500 prohibited or restricted substances for cosmetic use. By comparison, the European Union has banned approximately 1100 such ingredients and the U.S., only 11. Manufacturers are required to send Health Canada a list of ingredients 10 days after a product goes on the market.

Mandatory cosmetic labeling instituted by the Canadian federal government requires all cosmetics to have labels disclosing most of their ingredients. However, it is still hard to know whether a cosmetic may contain toxic substances or contaminants harmful to our health, since contaminants and residues do not have to be listed on a label even if they are on the hotlist. For example, 1,4-dioxane, which is a prohibited substance, does not have to be listed when it’s a contaminant, as often occurs in the process of making sodium or ammonium laureth sulphate.

It should trouble us that cosmetic companies – knowingly and without our consent – are allowed to expose us to substances that may cause cancer, disrupt our hormone systems, affect our reproductive systems or even the babies we carry, affect brain development, or contribute to allergies or sensitivities.

Manufacturers claim that their products are safe and that low levels of toxic ingredients should not affect human health – and the Canadian government agrees with this!. But we should never forget the myriad of other toxic substances that are part and parcel of our daily exposure, such as those from plastics, car exhaust, household chemicals, pesticide residues on food and trace chemicals in water. Chemicals do interact with each other, potentially compounding their negative effects. Given the gross lack of data on the long-term or combined health effects of the majority of cosmetic ingredients, low concentrations of toxic chemicals should not be reason for their approval

Not all cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. Positive examples exist right at our fingertips (see box for a list of common, safer ones). It is time that the beauty industry (and the regulators that govern it) support truly healthy bodies, not just ones that look that way.

There are more ways than one to push the beast out of beauty. Prevent Cancer Now is working with Breast Cancer Action Montreal to promote a national Safe Cosmetics Campaign on May 10 – Mother’s Day. Look for details in future issues of An Ounce and on the PCN website. Find out how you can be instrumental in bringing about the changes we deserve to ensure that we have safe cosmetics.

Sandra Madray is a PCN Board Member and co-founder of Chemical Sensitivities Manitoba

Some safer cosmetics / toiletries companies:

  • Alba
  • Almay Pure Blends
  • Aloe Organics
  • Aubrey Organics
  • Avalon Organic
  • Burt’s Bees
  • Desert Essence Organics
  • Dr. Hauschka
  • Gabriel
  • Jason
  • Kiss My Face
  • Lavera
  • Logona
  • Millcreek Botanicals
  • Nature Clean
  • Nature’s Gate
  • New Co Natural Technology
  • NoMiss Nail Polish
  • NOW
  • Peace-keeper
  • Physician’s Formula – Organic Wear
  • Prairie Naturals
  • Pure Anada
  • Sonoma Soap Company
  • Suki
  • Zuzu

  • Download the Table: Toxins found in cosmetics


    Also in this Issue on An Ounce …

  • Pink Ribbon™ Barbie® Sends the Wrong Message
  • Spring into Action!
  • April is Cancer Month
  • Say it is so, Mr. Ignatieff
  • The Toxic Treatment: Harmful Chemicals in Canadian Cosmetics
  • PCN needs you! Fun and Fundrai$ing for Prevent Cancer Now!
  • Book Review: Corrupt to the Core: Memoirs of a Health Canada Whistleblower
  • Those Carcinogenic Tar Sands: Add nukes and stir up more cancer?