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What’s really in your shampoo?

Have you ever wondered what the ingredients on the back of your shampoo bottle really mean? Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt, the authors of "No More Dirty Looks," claim that the chemicals in common products could make you sick.
/ Source: TODAY books

Have you ever wondered what the string of ingredients on the back of your shampoo bottle really means? Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt are the authors of “No More Dirty Looks,” which claims that the chemicals in common beauty products could make you sick. Read an excerpt.

The blowout
It started with a $400 promise. Get the Brazilian blowout — a fancy new keratin hairstyling treatment — and we’d have perfectly straight, wash-and-go hair for up to two months. This was a couple of years ago, at a time when we both had higher-paying jobs and less level heads. So we went to a posh West Hollywood salon, plopped down into comfy leather chairs, and flipped through tabloids as a mysterious solution was flat-ironed onto our hair. Our eyes watered and the backs of our throats burned, but we barely flinched when the salon offered us protective goggles.

Two teary-eyed hours later, we both had shiny, immaculately straight hair — identical in fact, save for the color. When we’d woken up that morning, our hair could not have been more different: Siobhan’s was long, thick, and blonde; Alexandra had a mass of brown curls. Now we looked like Betty and Veronica. As we ran our fingers through our pin-straight locks, we were amazed. It was so ... pretty. And straight. And stinky.

That evening, over french fries and white wine, we nicknamed our ’dos “toxic molé” for their distinctly unorganic cocoa smell. Instructed to not wash or pin back our hair for forty-eight hours, we would have to get used to it, a sacrifice in the name of delightfully manageable hair.

As the weeks wore on and the stench wore off, our hair was a daily delight. We found the summer humidity tolerable and were happy that our morning routines had been halved. Still, something wasn’t sitting right. We’re both skeptics by nature and journalists by trade, and this feat of nature started seeming a little, well, unnatural. It would only be a matter of time before something clicked. A matter of time, or a matter of seriously s---ty-looking hair, which is what happened next.

The shine had gone matte, our ends were decimated, and we had crowns of flyaways that were most certainly not there before. It was this comedown off the perfect-hair high that fueled our curiosity; we became intent on tracking down just what was in that mysterious solution. That’s when the research began and the panic set in. It started with basic Googling (which is never a good idea when you’re feeling nervous). We found an article about a woman who’d died days after a similar treatment, asphyxiated by the noxious fumes. As it turns out, the magic ingredient in our lovely Brazilian blowout was not keratin after all. It was formaldehyde.

Before long, we were poring over decades worth of scientific studies and learning the unfamiliar language of chemistry, one fourteen-letter word at a time. At first, it raised more questions than it answered: Why on earth would a beauty treatment contain a known carcinogen? How is that even legal? We considered that it may be an exception to the rule: one rogue company in an otherwise safeguarded industry that was taking advantage of our vanity. But as we dug further, we opened up a Pandora’s box of bad news.

Image: No More Dirty Looks
No More Dirty Looks: The Truth about Your Beauty Products--and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics book cover

We began studying the ingredient lists of our shampoos, our bronzers, our body lotions, and our nail polishes. We noticed a lot of the same words over and over again — propylene glycol, methyl paraben, “fragrance” — so we looked them up in medical-research databases. We learned that in addition to the noxious chemicals in our pricey blowouts, there were sketchy ingredients in just about everything we used — from our daily shampooing to our biweekly manicures. We also learned that only 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be in use by the cosmetics industry have been tested for safety by a publicly accountable agency. Of the ones we do know about, some are flat-out dangerous to our health, others are questionable at best, and most are doing almost nothing to improve the quality, feel, and health of our skin and hair. So not only are these products wreaking some unspeakable havoc on our bodies, they’re also making us look worse.

What a drag, we thought. Like most women, we had an arsenal of products we swore by. We’d given these brands our trust (and our money) for years. But then something incredible happened. As we started switching to clean beauty products, we began to feel and see a difference in our appearances. And it was a good difference. Our skin was clearer, our hair calmed down — we even smelled better once we found a decent natural deodorant.

It makes sense: the bottom line for most businesses is just that — the bottom line. Large cosmetics companies have huge product runs that must be able to withstand years on the shelf and remain stable in all kinds of climates and conditions. This kind of manufacturing is not always going to be about supplying you with the highest-quality, most beautifying ingredients for your buck. So they pad their products with cheap, widely accepted fillers, and spend the big coin on marketing campaigns.

But it’s not as though they don’t know the science. They’ve read the same reports we have, and then some. So why are they selling us these things? In the words of one industry scientist whose employer charges $250 for a 2-ounce pot of face cream, “Because we can.”

Outside inSkin is a moody organ, finicky about what it lets in and what it keeps out. Yes, it is a protective layer, which is why when you spill water on yourself, you don’t melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. At the same time, our dermis does let in lots of other things we put on it — as much as 60 percent, by some accounts.

If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, you may be familiar with the nicotine patch. If you were lucky, it gave you Technicolor dreams and curbed your cigarette cravings by supplying you with a steady flow of nicotine. The patch can do that thanks to transdermal absorption, an effective way of getting all kinds of things right into your bloodstream. Skin is a popular delivery route for many medications, precisely because it’s so direct. Think about that. Now think about how much you put on your skin, and how often.

You probably bathe daily. Every other day, sometimes? Fair enough; us, too. But every time we decide we want to wash, plump, moisturize, nourish, shine, buff, soften, bronze, and otherwise play around with how we look and feel, we are reaching for a bottle whose contents are largely a mystery. That’s not because we’re all idiots; that’s the way the cosmetics industry has set it up. They will boast about one or two ingredients in their ads — usually the natural ones — while obscuring the bulk of the ingredients in four-point font in a barely contrasting color on the edge of the bottle. And yet ingredient lists are the most transparent thing these companies provide us.

Now consider that many of us use up to twenty products a day, from body wash to mascara, and everything in between. With each product containing anywhere from twenty to fifty or more ingredients — not to mention artificial fragrance, which we’ll get to — that’s up to one thousand chemicals we’re exposing ourselves to every single day, sometimes twice a day, without having a clue what these things are, not to mention how they interact together in the bottle and on our bodies.

Meanwhile, no independent authority or government agency is monitoring what cosmetics companies put in our products. The FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors has a couple of rules in place, and it likes to say it regulates the industry, but a closer look reveals that the beauty business is, in fact, almost entirely self-regulated. That isn’t to say that no safety testing is being done; it’s just that it’s being done almost exclusively by the cosmetics companies themselves. It’s a system whose checks and balances are woefully inadequate, allowing for the widespread use of some pretty questionable substances.

That’s because the cosmetics laws in the United States haven’t really changed since 1938. Since then, cosmetics have gotten incredibly sophisticated and have exploded into a $35 billion industry. Unchecked business, massive profits, and outdated laws: remind you of any other industries?

Excerpted from "No More Dirty Looks" by Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt. Copyright © 2010. Da Capo Lifelong Books.