Your Toiletries Might Be Killing You. And the Environment. And People in Congo.

Your Toiletries Might Be Killing You. And the Environment. And People in Congo.

Alexis ChapmanWednesday,2 December 2015

If you live in one of the states or counties that recently banned microbeads, or if you’re anticipating the passage of the federal law banning them, or if you just don’t think it’s a good idea to dump millions of tiny pieces of plastic into the water, then you may have recently stopped buying toiletries containing microbeads. Good for you! But before you stock up on new products you might want to consider avoiding some other ingredients too.

On October 27 a study was published by researchers at UC Berkley which suggests that parabens, a common ingredient in all sorts of personal care products, may contribute to an increased risk of breast cancer. Fortunately, last April Senator Feinstein introduced S. 1014, the “Personal Care Products Safety Act,” which would make it easier for the FDA to act on studies like this and stop the sale of cosmetics if an ingredient has a “reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences.” I’m pretty sure cancer counts as a serious adverse health consequence, so the law could probably apply to products with parabens. Unfortunately, the bill hasn’t moved since being assigned to committee right after introduction.

Ideally the Berkley study will spur action, the bill will get passed, further study will ensue, appropriate action on parabens will be taken by the FDA, microbeads will have already been banned, and we can all sit back and relax, secure in the knowledge that the system works. Less ideally, which is to say in reality, neither bill has passed yet, and if they are passed it will probably be years before they are put into effect. In the meantime, parabens and microbeads have been on the market for decades, in thousands of products that a lot of people use every single day. Previous studies only looked at parabens in isolation and failed to take into account how they interact with other molecules. And apparently no one bothered to check whether it was environmentally hazardous to put little bits of plastic into products designed to go down the drain. Oops.

And of course even if we do get microbeads and parabens out of our toiletries, there is something else awful lurking in our bathrooms. Of course. Conflict minerals like tin (which is in tons of cosmetics) are mined in zones of armed conflict where human rights abuses are prevalent, in particular in Congo. To put that another way: one of the ingredients in your toiletries (and your car and your computer and your phone) was likely mined at gunpoint in order to generate revenue for an armed group committing human rights violations. That’s really messed up and in this case there isn’t even a bill I can link to that’s supposed to stop it because the bill was passed two years ago.

Dodd Frank was an absolute monster of legislation designed to do everything from preventing another 2008 style financial crisis to limiting the trade of conflict minerals by making companies disclose where they sourced them. Unfortunately, unlike a real monster, it lacked teeth and enforcement has been basically nonexistent. A huge percentage of companies haven’t even complied with the disclosure measure, and of those that have tried, many have found that their supply chain is so convoluted they don’t even know where their minerals come from. Waiting for Dodd Frank to be fully enforced is like Waiting for Godot so if you don’t want to be inadvertently funding armed conflict in Congo, then the best bet is to just add conflict minerals to the list of things you’re not buying.

Our current regulatory framework for pretty much everything (except some foods and drugs) is reactionary, piecemeal, and is constantly being scientifically outpaced by commercial developments. But that’s the system we have and until that changes the onus will be on us as consumers. We need to stay informed, we need to vote for legislators who are trying to fix this, and we need to vote with our dollars at the register for products that are not wrecking everything. Finding toiletries (or anything else) to buy that are ethical, healthy, and environmentally sustainable is really hard, but it’s less hard than having cancer, not having clean water, or working at gun point in a mine, so I think we can do it. And on the upside this may simplify your holiday shopping. Just buy everyone you know locally handmade biodegradable soap.

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Image Credit: Responsible Sourcing Network on Flickr

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