“Let’s not debate how much lead should be allowed in lipstick; just get the toxic chemicals out of our products.” (quote at minute 7:09 of The Story of Cosmetics)

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? That’s one of the reasons this quote in Annie Leonard’s video makes me a little crazy. It implies that all “toxic” chemicals in personal care products are there because manufacturers put them there and are stubbornly refusing to remove them, even to protect public health. This just isn’t the case.

Let’s start with lead as an example. Through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA set the action level for lead in drinking water at 15 ppb. The FDA’s recommended upper limit for lead in candy is .1 ppm (equal to 100 ppb). Why have the EPA and FDA set allowable levels of lead in food and water? Why did they debate how much lead to allow in those products? Why don’t they just “get that toxic chemical out” of our food and water? And should our cosmetics be “safer” than our food and water?

Lead is present in our air, our soil, and our water. It’s there naturally, and it’s also there because we put it there—through years of burning leaded gasoline, using lead pipes, and painting lead all over our homes. Lead is indeed present in some lipstick, but not because we (as manufacturers) “put it in there.” It’s there because we use pigments that come from the earth, which contain trace amounts of lead. Why do some lipsticks contain more lead than others? Lipsticks contain different amounts of different pigments, which contain varying amounts of lead. Lead levels in soils also vary depending on their location. Refining and manufacturing processes could conceivably affect lead levels, too, much as levels of lead in a home’s drinking water vary depending on whether it is well water or “city” water, what type of plumbing the home has, even how “hard” or hot the water is. In other words, it’s NOT that simple to “just get the lead out.” Which is why safe levels are established.

What about those other toxic chemicals that cosmetics manufacturers are just throwing in willy-nilly? Shouldn’t we “just take them out” too? I think that depends on what chemicals you’re talking about, and how you view the role of chemicals in products. Though it may sound alarming, in my time off I frequently bake with sodium aluminum sulfate, monocalcium phosphate, and even sodium bicarbonate, a chemical created by the reaction of calcium carbonate, sodium chloride, ammonia, and carbon dioxide. I have occasionally (inadvertently) “just taken out” these ingredients, but the omission resulted in flat, unappealing muffins and cupcakes. These three ingredients together are what we call baking powder, the leavening agent that gives muffins (and other baked goods) that fluffy texture. Yes, they are chemicals, but they are added for a purpose.

In the same way, most chemicals that are added to personal care products are there for a reason. Personal care products that contain water, for example, must contain a preservative. Preservatives are by nature “toxic” because they have antibacterial and/or anti-fungal properties. Being “toxic” to bacteria or fungus, however, does not necessarily mean that the substances are “toxic” to humans. And “just leaving out” the preservatives because they are chemicals, or not natural, does NOT make a “safer” product. My first job was in a biotech laboratory fermenting 30 liter vats of E. coli, so I can tell you that it’s the most “natural” thing in the world for bacteria to enter a nutrient-rich environment and flourish. The oils, butters, plant extracts, vitamins, amino acids, and sugars present in so many natural beauty products provide rich nutrient sources for bacterial and fungal growth. As a consumer, my expectation is that the product I purchase will not require refrigeration; will stay “good” in the container while I’m using it up; and will not introduce bacteria or fungus onto my skin. The addition of a chemical preservative makes this possible. While you could “just take out” the preservative, would you want to deal with the alternative?

What about ingredients like propylene glycol? They can’t have any redeeming virtues, right? I love this discussion of propylene glycol at the Tom’s of Maine web site. It’s another excellent illustration of consumer expectations of products and their functions. Yes, we want our products to be safe and sustainable, but we also expect them to work. If a chemical is in a formulation to serve a particular purpose, “just removing it” will remove that functionality. What if there is no adequate substitution? Tom’s of Maine customers preferred propylene glycol in their deodorant when the option was body odor. What product functionality are YOU willing to part with?

The ingredients you get in your cosmetics and personal products vary a lot depending on the manufacturer. As The Story of Cosmetics says, “Many responsible cosmetics companies are already putting safer products on the market.” You know them from your farmer’s markets or other local or online shops; they may or may not be listed in the Skin Deep database as signers of the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. But even those who have signed the compact are making lipstick with lead (hello, Burt’s Bees) because it’s almost impossible not to. Even those who have signed it are having to balance product functionality with the issues of sustainability and safety (like Tom’s of Maine). And even those “responsible cosmetics companies” who have signed it and are “putting safer products on the market” will be out of business if The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 passes as written. They are simultaneously recommending these companies and working to put them out of business.

Please, understand not just what is in your products but why those ingredients are there and what purpose they serve. Were they put there intentionally? Are they ingredients that are also present in your food? How will the products perform if those ingredients are removed? Also realize how fear affects your decision-making, and be skeptical of those who want you to be fearful of one or many ingredients, regardless of their quantity. There are so many places to get information, and so many sources for safe products; legislating even our “safe” options out of existence because of fear is NOT the answer.

(If you want to help protect the small businesses already providing safe products, please sign the petition to oppose H.R. 5786 as written. At this point, more than 3,500 have already signed.)