Co-founder, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
“Green chemistry is currently a small band of dedicated champions and it needs to be a massive scientific revolution backed up by serious funding and support.” Stacy Malkan ,Los Angeles Times, 9/19/08
If you needed a cancer-risk diagnosis, would you go to a journalist? Millions of Americans have been unwittingly doing just that when they listen to Stacy Malkan talk about the “dangers” that chemicals in cosmetics represent. Before founding the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Malkan worked as a journalist and a flack for the activist group Health Care Without Harm. She’s also the author of Not Just a Pretty Face, a diatribe against chemical advances in the beauty industry.
She’s on a crusade to eliminate everyday chemicals from everyday items – with no regard to cost, their effectiveness, or the consequences for health and safety their removal would mean – and she needs to raise money to do so. How will she accomplish that goal? By generating fear, manipulating data, and whipping up populist sentiment against items she describes as “toxic.”
She preys on the public’s fear of big, scientific-sounding words with suffixes like “-oxide” and “-ite,” typically neglecting to mention that these chemicals often appear in nature. When you get down to the parts per billion level, practically everything – from vegetables to drinking water to other “healthy” items – contains carcinogens. Their mere appearance shouldn’t signal worry; the dosage level is more important.
She’s already taken her arguments directly to the most impressionable amongst us: children. Speaking in front of high school students, Malkan ominously warned that “we are all putting these chemicals on our bodies every day – women, men, children.” She was warning against the dangers of evil toxins in baby shampoos, including the dread cancer-causing “carcinogens.” Unfortunately, when you count on a journalist for your health advice odds are you’re going to get burned.
You’re better off listening to a person like Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. “The words ‘carcinogen’ and ‘baby’ in the same sentence add up to a formula for panic,” Schwarcz wrote in the Montreal Gazette. “Of course the pertinent question is whether or not the amounts found in those products present a risk. As we well know, dose matters.” And as Schwarcz points out in his piece, the dose of carcinogens in baby shampoo is much lower than the dose of carcinogens in … chicken soup. The parsnips, celery, basil, black pepper, and mushrooms in his home-cooked broth offer as large a health risk as baby shampoo (which is to say, no risk at all).
What Malkan fails to realize – or, if she does realize, fails to pass on to her audience – is that small doses of chemicals (even chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer when ingested/inhaled in massive quantities) are not necessarily harmful. In a recent survey of toxicologists by the Society of Toxicologists, 94 percent rejected the notion that “any exposure to a harmful chemical is unacceptable.”
But the argument that any exposure to chemicals is bad exposure to chemicals is a theme that runs throughout Malkan’s oeuvre. In the video “The Story of Cosmetics,” for example, she perpetuates a myth first put forward years ago about the presence of lead in lipsticks; she and coauthor Annie Leonard argue that any lead is dangerous and that the FDA needs to crackdown on lead’s presence in lipstick and any other cosmetic.
Only one problem: The FDA is fully aware of the issue and conducted a study that appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal for Cosmetic Sciences that found the lead content in lipstick to be “within the range that would be expected from lipsticks formulated with permitted color additives and other ingredients that had been prepared under good manufacturing practice conditions.” Lead may be present, but not in too-high amounts. As toxicologists say, “the dose is the poison.”
“These things sound terribly scary, but there’s a massive disconnect between how toxicologists evaluate risks and how activist groups evaluate risk, and even then there are debates,” an editor with George Mason University’s Center for Health and Risk Communication told the New York Times. Dr. Therese Bevers, an oncologist with the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston concurred: “lead hasn’t been linked to breast cancer, colon cancer or other cancers.”
What activists like Malkan fail to understand – or understand and ignore so they can continue scaring people and scoring big grants from leftwing environmentalist philanthropies – is that getting rid of chemicals comes with tradeoffs. For example, Dr. Schwarcz says that it’s possible to get rid of formaldehyde and dioxane from cosmetic products to avoid (extremely rare) allergic reactions. “But reactions to bacterial contaminants that may form in the absence of preservatives are a bigger concern,” he writes. “It always comes down to a risk-benefit analysis.”