Kathy Peiss discusses many of the health hazards of cosmetics, especially early patent cosmetics of the 19th century. Americans distrusted cosmetics not only because they allowed women to disguise their true selves, but also for very practical health related reasons. Peiss notes that, “mercury, lead, and arsenic appeared in formulas of a number of fashionable beauty preparations”.¹ We are fortunate to live in a time where these hazardous chemicals have been eliminated from makeup products.
But wait! A 2007 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics showed tested popular 33 brands of lipstick and found 61% were contaminated with lead. A follow-up study by the FDA found even higher levels of lead. Check it out:
The scariest thing to me is that “lead is a contaminant not listed on lipstick ingredient labels”, so even an educated consumer who thoroughly checks her labels is not fully informed.
Beauty treatments can be harmful not only to the people using the products but to cosmetologists, hair stylists, and others who are exposed to toxic chemicals at work.
See this article for information about formaldehyde in hair straighteners:
Nail polish is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to toxicity. About 40% of nail technicians are Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom do not speak English well or are not familiar enough with American institutions to advocate for their own safety.²
Although I agree with Linda Scott that it is problematic to idealize “natural” beauty when it is defined as “the absence of artifice” ³, what if the effects of that artifice are more than social and psychological? I want women to be empowered, not poisoned by their cosmetics! All natural, paraben free and phthalate free beauty products do exist, but they tend to fall in a much higher price range, and are therefore not accessible to most women. And in a world where everything seems to cause cancer, some of us have to pick and choose our battles. But demanding safe cosmetics, and defending our right to feel healthy and beautiful, seems to me like a worthy cause.
Note: This post is inspired by my reading for Politics of Women’s Health, taught by Meera Sehgal.
1. Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 21.
2. Virginia Sole-Smith, “The High Price of Beauty,” in Women’s Health: Readings on Social, Economic, and Political Issues, ed. Nancy Worcester and Mariamne H. Whatley (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 2009), 432.
3. Linda M. Scott, Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 11.