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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Drop-Dead Gorgeous

Air Date: Week of

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Cosmetics shelves are crammed with products for shiny hair and flawless skin. Cosmetic labels are crammed with chemicals and artificial preservatives. Guest host Pippin Ross talks with Kim Erickson, author of the book "Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself Against the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics."


ROSS: Lotions, gels, powders and creams can be found on cosmetic shelves all over the world. These concoctions promise to smooth wrinkles, repair damaged skin, and shave away years with a dab here, and a spritz there. But, just what's in those bottles, jars and tubes is a mystery to many consumers.

Kim Erickson is a journalist from Las Vegas, Nevada, and has written a book called "Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics." She says there are many potential hazards in the pursuit of beauty.

ERICKSON: There are number of ingredients in our cosmetics and personal care products that can cause cancer, damage your reproductive system, affect your brain, irritate your skin, or cause an allergic reaction. In fact, a number of the chemicals used in cosmetics have been labeled as hazardous by the EPA.

ROSS: This is not good news.

ERICKSON: No it's not.

ROSS: It's especially not good news because I have brought into the studio some things that I use. (Unzips makeup bag) Let's start with lipstick, something most women use. What do you have to say about lipstick?

ERICKSON: Well, surprisingly, over the course of her lifetime, a woman will eat four pounds of lipstick, which is particularly a concern since many of the artificial colors used in lipsticks, and other cosmetics, have never been tested for safety. A tiny tube of lipstick contains more artificial colors than any other cosmetics. Artificial colors are derived from coal tar, which can contain a number of nasty chemicals like benzene, naphthalene, and phenol. So, it can definitely impact your long-term health.

ROSS: Now, I have also some nail polish. I found out in your book you're not crazy about nail polish.

ERICKSON: No. You know, I've still not found a really good, safe nail polish. Conventional nail polishes, quite often, contain two chemicals which are very dubious: toluene, which is a solvent in nail polish. It's currently regulated under California's Proposition 65 as a developmental toxin. And, animal studies have shown that this chemical can cause spontaneous abortion, and can cause delayed development of the spine, learning and behavioral deficiencies in fetuses.

ROSS: So, it's not really a matter of it suffocating your living, breathing finger nail. It's really being absorbed.

ERICKSON: It is definitely being absorbed. And it systemically ends up in your bloodstream. Another chemical that's often found is formaldehyde, which is not only a suspected carcinogen and neurotoxin, but it can damage your DNA.

ROSS: In your book, you talk quite a bit about these anti-microbial soaps, which you feel are very unhealthy, which is interesting seeing as they're marketed as a health maintenance device.

ERICKSON: Yes. These anti-bacterial products have become hugely popular. But they contain biocides such as triclosan, which is a kissing cousin to a common pesticide. Animal tests have shown this chemical to be toxic to the blood, liver and kidneys. And it's also a prevalent contaminant to the environment.

ROSS: Okay. Now let's shift the conversation a little bit here to the cosmetics industry. I mean, this is sounding a little bit like the tobacco industry.

ERICKSON: There are a number of similarities. Most people believe that the U.S. FDA insures the safety of cosmetics. But they actually don't have the authority to require safety testing before a product appears on the store shelves. What's more, manufacturers aren't required to report cosmetic-related injuries, or submit safety data on the ingredients used in their products.

ROSS: Right. They just have a little warning saying it may cause a rash, or discontinue use if such and such happens. And that's all they need to do?

ERICKSON: Actually, they don't even need to do that. Some manufacturers do that because they test for short-term problems such as allergic reactions or irritations. But, by and large, manufacturers do not test for long-term health risks such as hormone disruption or cancer.

ROSS: Okay. So, what are we going to do? What do we do to be clean and pretty, and not hurt ourselves?

ERICKSON: Fortunately, there are a number of cosmetic companies out there who have become responsible. They use natural ingredients to create their products. These can be found in health food stores and online.

ROSS: And you've got some of these things with you?

ERICKSON: Yes, I do.

ROSS: Tell me what you've got.

ERICKSON: Actually, I have an anti-bacterial, waterless hand wash. And, instead of triclosan, it relies on tea tree oil, which is an essential oil, to kill bacteria and microbes. I also have a lipstick which, surprisingly, uses no FD&C colors at all. It's based on hemp and herbs.

ROSS: Now, you have some amazing recipes in your book for making things like skin smoothers and even perfume. Do you have any recipes that are for extremely busy people?

ERICKSON: Actually, there are some recipes which are extremely easy and quick to make. One of them is a gentle exfoliant for your face. It's an oatmeal and honey mask. All you do is you mix a half a cup of oatmeal with two tablespoons of honey, slather it on, put your feet up, rinse it after about 20 minutes with warm water, and you have a glowing complexion.

ROSS: Hey, rinse it. Let your dog lick it off.

ERICKSON: That's true. It certainly wouldn't hurt the dog.

ROSS: Kim Erickson is a freelance environmental journalist in Las Vegas, Nevada, and author of "Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics." Kim, thanks for talking with me today.

ERICKSON: It's my pleasure, Pippin.



Drop-Dead Gorgeous from Amazon.com.">


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