The Wellesley Townsman - January 11, 2021

Absorbing the Truth About Cosmetics by Sara Frost Azzam

This article is the third in a series providing information to Wellesley residents about environmental and health issues. In doing so, the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project continues its mission to educate the community and to encourage individuals to reduce and/or eliminate the use of local environmental toxins.

Six months ago, I gave up biting my fingernails, a bad habit I have had practically since birth. But when I had the opportunity to research nail polish brands, I was disturbed to find out that most brands of nail polish contain a toxic chemical called Dibutyl Phthalate, or DBP for short. It is used as a plasticizer in nail polish, making for the smooth finish we all like on our polished nails. If the dibutyl phthalate stayed intact in the nail polish, women might absorb negligible amount into their bodies. However, the water-soluble component of the DBP is dissolved out of the nail polish each time one's nails come into contact with water. In fact, the reason that nail polish eventually chips is that it becomes brittle as the dibutyl phthlate leaches out of the polish. So, every time we wash our hands, DBP is washed out of the nail polish, allowing for multiple opportunities for DBP to be absorbed directly through our skin.

Dibutyl phthalate is the plasticizer that was, a few years ago, banned from use in children's toys since its water-soluble properties also meant that it could leach out of toys when a small child put the toy into his/her mouth. However, there seems to be no legal action taken when it is used in cosmetic products. This is because the regulations for children's products are far more strict than those governing cosmetics. The studies that the government conducts on chemical safety usually only involve chemicals added to food, so personal care products still may contain chemicals that are otherwise tightly regulated as food additives.

Recently the Centers for Disease Control became alarmed by the discovery that dibutyl phthalate was present in every single woman tested for the compound with the highest levels found in women of childbearing age. Concerned by the finding of this report, a group called the Environmental Working Group decided to check out real and on-line drugstores to find which products used the toxin. Their study indicates that most popular brands of nail polish contain DBP. In my quest for a DBP-free nail polish, I came up with a new formula by Revlon that is both DBP-free and formaldehyde-free; it glides on and stays on just as well as any brand one would find at a nails studio.

Although the highest exposures are in nail polish, dibutyl phthalate is also added to shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and antiperspirants. This also puts males at risk. According to a report released early last year by the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, DBP is damaging to the male reproductive system, causing, among other things, reduced sperm counts. DBP is added to such products because it acts as a humectant (a skin moisturizer). The oily texture of DBP gives the false impression that the skin itself is soft and moisturized when, in fact, it is the DBP's residue on that skin that makes the skin feel this way. It works the same way in hair conditioners.

I am particularly worried about populations that were not studied by the Centers for Disease Control. Infants and children are all exposed to our hands as we change their diapers, prepare their food, and bathe them. Good hygiene dictates that we wash our hands frequently to avoid exposing our children to harmful bacteria before, during, and after such activities. But what if, in keeping with good hygiene practices, we are potentially exposing them to something else that is harmful? (Obviously, I am not advocating that we all stop washing our hands!) The adolescent girls who I know change their nail polish sometimes three and four times a day, exposing themselves frequently to DBP as well as to acetone from the nail polish remover.

For your children's health and for your own, I urge you to read the ingredient labels on your favorite products to ascertain whether or not dibutyl phthalate is contained. Be forewarned that this can be a painstaking process. While some cosmetics contain ingredient labels on the outside of the package, the print is tiny; in fact, when I was in the drugstore researching nail polish, I wished I had a magnifying glass with me! More expensive brands contain the ingredient labels inside the packaging where they cannot be read until the product is purchased. (However, most department store cosmetics salespersons are usually willing to check ingredients for anyone who asks.) The other thing you should know is that DBP can also be listed as "butyl ester" or possibly even just as "plasticizer." The task of researching every single cosmetic and personal care product sold in the United States would be a daunting one, even for a research group. In conducting my own research, I was happy to discover that my particular hair care products do not contain DBP, and I was glad that there is an alternative to the many nail polishes I had enthusiastically purchased when I finally stopped biting my nails. Since there are alternatives available, doesn't it make sense to consider using them to protect your health?

On Monday, March 26 at 9p.m, PBS will air an investigative report on the chemical industry. Americans say corporations should have the burden of proving chemicals are safe. The majority of citizens believe most chemicals are already tested for safety, and that the government is protecting them against harmful chemicals. But what is the true story? In TRADE SECRETS: A MOYERS REPORT, correspondent Bill Moyers and producer Sherry Jones uncover how our health and safety have been put at risk and why powerful forces don't want the truth to be known. This investigative report is based on a massive archive of secret industry documents as shocking as the "tobacco papers." In the 50 years of the chemical revolution, over 75,000 chemicals have been released into the environment. What happens as our body absorbs them? And how can we protect ourselves? This program seeks to find the answers to these and many other questions regarding the use of chemicals.