Gillian Deacon was researching toxins in personal care products for There's Lead in Your Lipstick (Penguin Group Canada), the follow up to her bestselling title Green for Life, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Talk about your personal crusades, now when Deacon addresses audiences about the dozens upon dozens of chemicals we lather ourselves in before we've even left the house, she's speaking from experience.
Julie Wilson: What are the biggest misconceptions consumers have about the cosmetic industry and safety standards? How do our standards differ from other countries, for better or worse?
Gillian Deacon: Most Canadians assume, as we stroll down the aisles of the drugstore, that any product that has made it onto the shelves has met some fairly strict guidelines for consumer health and safety. Sadly, that is not the case. There are no laws, neither in Canada nor the U.S., requiring a company to prove that a chemical is safe for human use before it is introduced into the marketplace. Of the 85-100,000 chemicals on the market in Canada, (plus the 1,000 new chemicals and polymers approved by Health Canada every year), roughly 85% are untested for human health and safety—which makes every morning's personal care routine a bit of a science experiment.
For the European market, where there are much stricter standards for personal care ingredients, the multinational manufacturers make a different but equally effective version of their products, because they have to. For the North American market, they leave the cheaper chemical ingredients in the recipe. So we are like a toxic dumping ground.
JW: If women were to make only one change to their daily cosmetic routine, what is the one toxin they should remove from their kits, and where is it most often found? Conversely, is there one ingredient that we would benefit from having more of in our kits?
GD: Parabens are ubiquitous, as they are cheap chemical preservatives. Phthalates are found in any product with a fragrance (including perfume). Triclosan is in your toothpaste. Mercury is in mascara . . . there's really no one toxin to avoid. The one change women should make isn't about avoiding any single chemical over another, it's about reading ingredient labels.
We tend to grab products based on price, familiar brand name (which just means we've been successfully marketed to), or package label claims. None of these is going to guide us to healthy choices. The only way to determine which products are safe and truly natural is to read the ingredient lists. Carry a "Lead in Your Lipstick" wallet card around in your purse or pocket so you'll be able to cross-reference troublesome ingredients. (Download at www.gilldeacon.ca.)
JW: As caregivers, how does this translate to our children's care? How are we introducing toxins into our babies lives, perhaps in places we wouldn't think to look?
GD: The ingredient list on a bottle of Mr. Bubble is so loaded with toxic chemicals it makes my head spin. Kiddie toothpastes that are bright green and bright red? Not tinted with crushed berries, I can tell you. Our children are exposed to hazardous ingredients everywhere they come into contact with synthetic petrochemicals, so we certainly want to give them plant-based, natural products wherever possible. Scientists talk about the Chemical Body Burden, which is the slow accumulation of these tiny amounts of chemicals in our everyday products. The industry claims to be using such small amounts as not to pose a health hazard, but government standards are woefully outdated and lax so even those "safe limits" don't take into account the latest research, nor do they take into consideration the fact that daily use amounts to repeated exposure to these toxins. So the fewer chemicals we introduce into our children's bodies, the more we are reducing their overall body burden, for which they'll thank us when they're older.
JW: What are some of the most common side effects of toxins, things we've possibly come to take for granted as "normal"?
GD: People often just mention cancer as one of the big health risks associated with a lot of the chemicals in personal care products, and there's no doubt there are many carcinogenic concerns. But a whole lot of health concerns are linked with exposure to toxins, everything from dizziness, headaches, dermatitis, allergies, liver damage, kidney damage, respiratory damage. Both phthalates and parabens are endocrine-disruptors, which means they are hormone-mimicking in our bodies. Hormone-related concerns such as mood swings, PMS and even infertility can be triggered by chemical exposure.
JW: Coming up to the warmer weather, are we wearing less make up but perhaps applying more SPF, moisturizers, self-tanners, shaving creams? Are there any specific items we should be more mindful of in the summer season?
GD: Self-tanners are generally a no-no, unless you use on of the few natural ones recommended in the book. If you want some colour (and even if you don't ) give yourself 20 minutes of un-screened sun exposure, in order to get vitamin D. In our efforts to avoid skin cancer we've been slapping on chemical sunscreen loaded with oxynbenzone and other petrochemical ingredients (which is a cause of cancer in itself) thereby reducing our intake of natural cancer-fighting vitamin D from the sun. Give yourself, and even your kids over age one, 20 minutes unprotected time in the sun, then use a mineral sunscreen. Lots of good choices in There's Lead in Your Lipstick!
JW: When speaking about There's Lead in Your Lipstick, I imagine you must come up against at least some resistance from women who would say that we shouldn't bother using beauty products at all. Why support an industry that wants us to hook us into spending money to "look good" that doesn't care about their products impact on our health? How do you respond?
GD: Yes, occasionally someone at a talk will ask me why I don't advocate that women abandon hair dye and makeup altogether, as a truly green stance. I fully support their rights to go grey and makeup-free as much as the next woman's right to paint her nails and doll herself up. It's not for me to judge how each of us gets dressed in the morning and what makes each of us feel good. I can only educate people about safer options and try to encourage everyone to support smaller companies that use plant-based ingredients and sustainable operations. The average woman uses a dozen personal care products every single day, and you don't have to be vain and fashion-obsessed to hit most of the items on this list: shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, soap, floss, moisturizer, hair gel, deodorant, and so on. There's a feminist case to be made that women shouldn't have to be beholden to cosmetics companies to look and feel beautiful, which I absolutely get. But my point is really more about the public health case: no matter what products we use every day, we have the right to know what is in them and to be able to avoid poisoning ourselves with products sold on store shelves.
JW: Going into the summer, what are some recipes or household ingredients you'd suggest? Would exfoliants and moisturizers top the list?
GD: My moisturizer of choice all year round is sweet almond oil. It's affordable, safe and deliciously moisturizing on the skin. I always add a few drops of essential oil into a palmful of sweet almond oil when I get out of the shower, so I get a little scent in there with my moisturizer. No perfume, no chemicals, all natural and fabulous.
To exfoliate, just add salt (sea salt, epsom salts or even table salt) to the scented oil mixture above and give your wet skin a good scrub before a bath or shower. If you just do a quick rinse, you won't even need to moisturize afterwards.
JW: You have your own story going into this book, and you've no doubt met a lot of women who have shared personal anecdotes, both sad and enlightening. Could you share some?
GD: Midway through writing and researching this book, as I was up to my eyeballs in infuriating research about how many everyday chemicals cause breast cancer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Me, the 42-year-old vegetarian who lived green and preached the eco-healthy lifestyle for a living! I ran half-marathons, breast-fed all three of my children, had no family history. I just didn't fit the profile. (That's the subject of my next book!)
I have been contacted by so many cancer survivors, or relatives of survivors, who say they are so appreciative of There's Lead in Your Lipstick because they never realized how risky these everyday product ingredients were. So that makes me feel wonderful. It's so rewarding to know that the hard work that went into painstaking research for this book is able to benefit so many people who really get how important this information is to us all.