I’m working on my keynote talk for next week’s Sustainable Cosmetics Summit, and I got to thinking about the paradigm shifts in science that are changing the business of beauty. To sum it up: We didn’t used to know what we know now about the health risks posed by toxic chemicals. So, now that we know, what are we going to do about it?

We know, for example, that chemicals don’t act in the predictable ways once assumed. You’ve probably heard the old adage “the dose makes the poison” — the idea coined by Paracelsus in the 1500s (and oft repeated by beauty industry execs) that toxic substances are harmless in small enough doses, while harmless substances can be deadly if over-consumed.

Science has come a long way in that past five centuries. Now we know: it’s not the dose that makes the poison, but also the timing of the dose, the size of the person and the toxicity of chemical mixtures — factors that aren’t considered in typical risk assessments.

We know that even very low doses of some chemicals can have a profound effect on health, especially if exposures occur to the developing fetus. And there’s far too much we don’t know. Consider the following equation for risk assessment:

Risk = Hazard x Exposure

Makes sense, except that we have a regulatory system that encourage ignorance on all parts of the equation. You can’t figure out the answer (risk) if you don’t have good information about hazard and exposure — and unfortunately, there are no requirements for cosmetics companies to assess the hazard of the chemicals they use or understand how much their customers are being exposed.

It reminds me of the time the Cosmetics Ingredients Review panel tried to determine the risk of phthalates in cosmetics by calculating exposure numbers on the back of a lunch napkin. (See Chapter 2 of my book for more on that story.) The bottom line is, they don’t know the aggregate exposure, and to understand risk, you would have to know how much people are being exposed to a particular chemical as well as to other substances that have similar biological mechanisms of action.

Clearly, we need new chemical policies and new cosmetic laws that bring our regulatory framework and scientific assessment methods into the 21st century.

Meantime, companies have a choice about how to respond to new knowledge from current science. Many good companies are choosing to avoid hazardous chemicals in the first place. And then there are those who insist it’s safe for products like baby shampoo to contain low levels of known carcinogens mixed with various other toxins. What are they thinking? Calvin & Hobbes offer some insight:

Thanks to all the companies that are willing to get informed, act on new knowledge and make the best choices — these companies have my business and will continue to grow as more people become aware of the facts. And to all the rest:  Ignorance may be easier but it’s not particularly smart!

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12 Responses to “”

  1. stephenie Says:

    LOVE this!! Go Stacy!!

  2. mina Says:

    Like everything you’ve done- this is thoughtful, intelligent and important for everyone!



  3. Claudia Says:

    Once people pay attention and are informed they can ‘vote’ on these issues with their dollars at the register….spreading the word is very important! Thanks for your efforts.

  4. lisa Says:

    It is amazing how much this information means to people who haven’t realized what it is they are actually putting on their bodies. knowledge is key.

  5. Kourtney L. Says:

    I believe that companies make it hard for people to have good information about their products. It’s encouraging to see some companies and websites likes yours providing education to learn more about the products we are using on our bodies everyday.

    A company I believe is not being truthful and informative is the Clorax company. I am getting some information together on their company buying out Burt’s Bees and they claim that their bleach product is not harmful to the environment. Their website is full of clouds and water pictures to show how earth friendly they are.

    How can we tell if a company is lying or has actually scientific evidence that their product is a good product? I feel like companies muddle what they want there product to be and the truth behind science together.

  6. Caitlin Waddick Says:

    In the 50′s, and to some extent, today, engineers were taught, “The solution to pullution is dilution.”. The dose does make the poison, but we now know that very low doses can cause more adverse health effects than some moderate or high doses. The new adage should be: “A little bit goes a long way.”. For example, high-doses of hormone-mimicking chemicals flood cellular receptors, which shut down and stop transmitting signals, whereas low doses mimic the body’s own hormone doses and cause adverse effects. Low doses can be hard or impossible to measure, so it used to be assumed that they had no effects. We know better now. — C. Waddick, Ph.D.

  7. Connie Rae Says:

    Thanks so much…love the way this is presented. In todays world, with toxic chemicals causing brain fog in everyone, even in high places…bumper sticker simplicity is needed…and the oft profound comic strip humor. Let’s hope the companies decide before it is legislated…things change so quickly for the speed of government intervention.

  8. Sue Says:

    The EPA agrees: “Some of the chemicals of most potential concern in cleaning products are those used in small concentrations. Chemicals of concern include sensitizers, carcinogens, and environmentally toxic and persistent compounds. Small quantities don’t necessarily mean small hazards: A person, once sensitized to a chemical, can have an allergic response even if exposed at minute levels.”

    Check the products you use for the “Design for the Environment” labeling! http://daydreamsblog.com/green_cleaning/

  9. Stark Says:

    Thanks for this article! I think that, on the consumer’s part, much of the harm lies in assumptions: we assume that someone else is looking out for us, that if a product can be sold (and by a big retailer!) then the product has been thoroughly tested and is completely safe. We assume that our government look out for us, and we assume that our health is always priority #1.

    Well, nobody is looking out for us, and our health is only #1 to ourselves. Thank you for exposing the truth that we can’t assume that even science is acting in our best interest. For now, it’s every consumer to themselves, and knowledge is key, although sometimes confusing (so true!).

    As this information becomes common knowledge, there will be a paradigm shift. We will be seeing more and more consumers refusing to buy toxic garbage, and more and more people will make the shift to truly green, natural products!

    Thank you for all your hard work towards our plight. :)

  10. Elizabeth Says:

    Great article! The Sustainable Cosmetics Summit sounds like a great meeting of the minds!

  11. Jan Tafuri Says:

    Question: Why is organic food/products costlier than non organic food/products?

  12. Hilary Villano Says:

    I no longer wear anti-perspirants as it was blocking the pores and I was getting painful swollen lumps under my arms. So now I use deodorant and it works great. I was thinking maybe Julia carries around baby wipes or something similar with her and gives her pits a swipe now and then if they start to stink.

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