I’ve Got You Under My Skin

Consider skin—our largest organ of elimination and a permeable membrane capable of absorbing much it encounters. Now consider the $40 billion skin care industry, amassing an ever-growing arsenal of chemical ingredients exempt from safety testing or meaningful regulation. Eleven percent of the ingredients used in personal care products have been tested and approved—by the cosmetic industry’s own review panel. The remaining 89 percent of ingredients, close to 10,000 of them, have never been tested for safety. The average American woman’s exposure adds up to 168 distinct ingredients applied to the skin every single day.

I thought I was worry-free on this front, since I buy organic and rarely use beauty products. It turns out some of the most toxic ingredients are also the most prevalent, found in shampoos and liquid soaps and sunscreens as well as in the hundreds of products more strictly known as cosmetics. What’s worse, any product made from organically grown ingredients can be labeled organic even though it also contains dangerous chemicals. The cosmetics industry has vigorously opposed regulations comparable to standards set for organic food labeling, blocked efforts to require labels noting ingredients not tested for safety, and defended the “trade secrets loophole” that allows ingredients to go unlisted.

One of the worst chemical offenders often hides in the ingredients list as “fragrance.” A class of chemicals called phthalates (pronounced THAY-lates), known to the industry as plasticizers, adds spreadability, disperses fragrance, and provides the sensation (but not the actuality) of smoothness. Any product that lists “fragrance” should be assumed to contain phthalates; they are used in over 70 percent of all personal care products.

A stream of scientific studies has been demonstrating the effects of phthalates on rodents since 1992. These chemicals are endocrine disrupters, interfering with both estrogen and testosterone, causing birth defects, reproductive impairments, and immune system damage. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 1999-2000 found that most Americans are walking around with measurable amounts of phthalates in their bodies. Last year a study made the jump from rodents to humans, showing correlations between mothers’ phthalate levels and boy babies with measurably smaller penises and greater likelihood of incomplete testicular descent.

Parabens are another class of endocrine disrupters, used in over half of all personal care products as preservatives. In 2004 parabens were found intact in breast cancer tissue, fueling subsequent debate over their role in the rise of breast cancer from one in 20 women 40 years ago to one in seven today. Compounding the problem, over half of all personal care products contain propylene glycol, known to the industry as a “penetration enhancer” that alters the cellular structure of the skin so other chemicals can pass through more easily.

These are not the sort of chemicals to quickly break down into harmless component parts. Since parabens, phthalates, and thousands of other common chemicals are created in the laboratory, nature doesn’t know what to do with them. They tend to persist and accumulate in our bodies. Whatever we don’t absorb through our skin goes down the drain and into our aquifers, where it can team up with other endocrine-disrupting wastes. Parabens and phthalates have been implicated in reproductive disruptions found in fish populations. It’s a horror made possible by affluence, fueled by relentless marketing that plays masterfully on our fears — of rejection, of not belonging, of aging. What to do?

The tweak-the-system-through-regulations approach may work in the European Union, which has banned phthalates and other chemicals in domestic and imported cosmetics. But here, in the Wild West of corporate personhood, will the government belatedly protect our waterways and us? True, the California State Assembly passed a safe cosmetics act last year to tighten disclosure requirements, and the US Senate has a bill pending, the Child, Worker, and Consumer Safe Chemicals Act. Not that it has much chance of passing, but if it did, the bill “could easily be undermined by industry lobbyists,” according to environmental health analyst Theo Colborn.

On the public pressure front, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has asked companies to sign a pledge to meet European Union standards within three years. Though it may sound promising that 250 companies have signed, closer examination reveals many are those that already avoid harmful chemicals on principle, like Aubrey Organics. Still, the pledge is one place to look before shopping——www.safecosmetics.org. Another useful web site is Skin Deep (www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep2/index.php), which features a searchable database of hundreds of products. You can type in the name of your shampoo and get a detailed explanation of its most obvious dangers.

If these efforts seem too little too late, how about revolution? Berkeley entrepreneur Shannon Schroter’s company GratefulBody is a home-grown example of an approach to skin care fundamentally different from the better-living-through-chemistry model that has gotten us into such trouble. Schroter redefines skin care according to the same paradigm shift that’s in motion in many of our culture’s most broken aspects—food production, education, health. The old paradigm, as Schroter sees it, relates to everything through the mind or senses, which can only apprehend what is observable—”so science becomes a rigorous examination of the behavior of matter.” Because we observe only matter, and not the dynamic force behind it, “our theories of life become based on separation, or how one part relates to another part.” This translates to an endeavor that, according to Schroter, “should be called the skin stress industry—they view skin as if it’s the outside of your car. There’s no respect for any natural process like aging.”

The new paradigm, as Schroter sees it, begins with acknowledging the intelligence of nature. Unity, harmony, cooperation, vitality, and radiant beauty are all expressions of nature’s intelligence. GratefulBody’s motto puts it another way: “&because there’s no separation between our skin, our health, and our planet.” Schroter views skin care products as a way for the body to receive nutrients rather than a means to manipulate skin into looking good. The beauty that results is the glow of health. It’s a refinement of the hippie credo I heard thirty years ago: “If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin.”

With four sisters and a mother who was a nutritionally savvy nurse, Schroter grew up surrounded by women and their health and beauty concerns. In the early ’70s, two of his sisters, at 21 and 31 years of age, died of cancer. As he sat in hospital waiting rooms and listened to the doctors, a terrible realization hit him — “Oh my God, no one knows what’s going on.” Schroter turned to the plant kingdom for answers, studying medicinal plant traditions of Western Europe, Ayurveda, and native America, and over many years taking on the plants themselves as teachers. And he began mixing up lotions and oils for his family. He felt intuitively that his sisters’ cancers had environmental causes. “My big motivation was to not have my mom or sisters or anyone close to me using chemical skin care,” he says. “No one was seeing that we’re in this huge experiment where women are dosing themselves with chemicals every day.”

As Schroter’s family shared his concoctions with friends, a circle of devotees developed. In 1997 Schroter began to sell his popular foot-toughening balm; the next year he expanded to GratefulBody. Each GratefulBody product is a formula Schroter has already tinkered with for years. Since life force is his number one consideration, he often buys fresh plants and dries them himself. GratefulBody uses only traditionally steam-distilled essential oils, another commonly hidden toxic ingredient in many “natural” products. Ninety-eight percent of essential oils are extracted by hexane——yes, paint thinner—since it takes five minutes to extract the same amount of essential oil derived in two hours by steam distillation. Traces of hexane remain in the oil.

Since my visit to GratefulBody’s Berkeley warehouse I’ve tried a few products. Even at my casual rate of a few drops of this or that a few times a week, the fragile skin under my eyes is firmer and stronger and that dusty dry cast has disappeared. More to the point, I feel nourished, like I’ve been eating healthy and delicious greens straight out of the garden. So that’s skin care.

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