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Confessions of a Beauty-Product Junkie
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Unfortunately, the problems begin even before I buy the stuff. Vogue magazine, a bible for legions of beauty and fashion nuts, ran more than 1,240 pages of advertising in the first six months of this year, as the new season of mauves pushed last season's corals and tangerines into the trash. With a circulation of 1.3 million, that translates to 1.6 billion printed pages, none of it containing any recycled content.

Image matters, even when it comes to toiletries: Many personal care products come with so much packaging that every little purchase makes you feel as if it's Christmas morning. Bottles are tucked in plastic, then packed into a paperboard box, then wrapped in cellophane. Then there's the bottle itself. Glass always appeals to me: Heavier products just feel...important. But if it's not refillable, it's often a poor choice. Its weight makes it expensive to ship, breakage leads to waste, and even though glass recycling rates are high, new glass still requires large amounts of energy to manufacture.

Choosing plastics is another minefield. While many products are sold in PET (No. 1) or HDPE (No. 2) plastic bottles, which can readily be recycled, one big problem is that consumers often forget. We're well trained in the kitchen and do the right thing with milk jugs and soda bottles. But shampoo and sunscreen are easy to overlook. And many health and beauty products are packaged in plastics that can't be recycled in most towns, which means they wind up in landfills.

The flexible yet durable plastic used to make everything from credit cards to cling wrap to ointment tubes is especially problematic. Labeled as plastic No. 3, plasticized polyvinyl chloride (plasticized PVC) is often made flexible by adding phthalates, a group of suspected carcinogens that may leach from the plastic during use. Dioxin, which is known to cause cancer, is released during PVC production and incineration.

And then there are the lotions and potions themselves. What's in those half-used ampoules that I wash down the drain? The frightening answer is that we don't really know. "This issue has only recently become topical in the U.S.," says Christian Daughton, chief of the EPA's environmental chemistry branch. Understandable, because for the past 30 years major industrial pollutants have captured most of our attention. But it's a problem nonetheless. According to new research by the Environmental Working Group, of the 10,500 chemical ingredients used in personal care products, only about 10 percent have been assessed for safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the regulation of cosmetics. Of those that have been studied, some substances such as coal tar (used in shampoos), silica (found in powders), and phthalates (found in nail polish and fragrances) are known to be toxic or carcinogenic or to cause problems with fertility. "The greatly accelerating development of new personal care products will only increase the prevalence of these chemicals in the environment," Daughton says.

We may learn just how prevalent in the next few years. In 1999, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) began the first ever national study of the presence of pharmaceuticals, hormones, detergents, and myriad components of personal care products in rivers and streams.

Using newly developed testing methods, scientists are measuring tiny concentrations of 95 organic wastewater contaminants in waterways downstream from major urban and agricultural areas. Although the compounds are difficult to isolate, one or more has been found in 80 percent of the 139 streams sampled so far. The project ultimately aims to address scientists's suspicions that there might be unforseen chemical interactions going on with the potential to turn our waterways and drinking water into a dilute toxic soup.

While this is all rather disconcerting, the truth is, i'm not about to stop buying beauty products -- and I shouldn't have to if I shop smarter and change some bad habits. For starters, I will finish what I buy. I've begun to grab products from the Siberia of my linen closet, putting them back into the morning rotation.

I'm also buying products with as little packaging as possible and searching for ones with recycled content. That can be as simple as reading the label on a shampoo bottle, making sure it's a No. 1 or a No. 2 plastic and avoiding No. 3s. Clairol Herbal Essences, for example, uses 25 percent postconsumer recycled plastic. After doing just a little research, sometimes I strike gold: My new favorite is Aveda Uruku Lip Pigment, which uses 90 percent recycled resins for the lipstick tube and 100 percent recycled newsprint for the container. Plus, it's refillable and cute.

Finding products that are safe and earth-friendly on the inside is harder. While the FDA requires a truthful listing of all ingredients, there are no standards for the most common marketing phrases, and most companies have tossed environmentally friendly words into the marketing soup. "Biodegradable" might just mean a substance breaks down eventually. Similarly, an "organic" shampoo may mean that it contains traces of an organic extract, and "hypoallergenic" simply means that the manufacturer believes it to be so. " 'Natural' doesn't mean much, but a specific claim, such as '100 percent petroleum free,' does," says Mindy Pennybacker, editor of The Green Guide, which ranks personal care products based on health concerns, use of petrochemicals, and environmental impact.

Nor is it easy to distinguish "good" companies from "bad" ones. Even within the same corporation, there are differences: One Almay mascara appears on the Environmental Working Group's "Better Choices" list, while two other Almay mascaras are in the top 10 of ones to avoid. That said, it still makes sense to look for brand names with a proven track record of environmental responsibility. These include Aubrey Organics; Aveda, owned by cosmetic giant Estée Lauder; Burt's Bees; Kiss My Face; and Tom's of Maine.

Best of all: After using these products, I realize I have a new sort of glow about me. Perhaps it's the beginnings of a clear conscience.

Check out your favorite brands using the Environmental Working Group's product guide:

Chemicals to avoid in everything from shampoo to eye shadow to sunscreens are explained by The Green Guide, at

Deciphering manufacturers labeling claims is tough. Get help at The Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels at

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

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OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council