Page 2 of 3
Common "worst offender" ingredients include phthalates, formaldehyde, and long-chained parabens such as propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben. Many of these are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which can affect our hormonal systems and reproductive organs in insidious ways. "Long-chained parabens can act as estrogens and disrupt hormone signaling," says Leiba, "which can lead to impaired fertility, lowered thyroid hormone levels, and other reproductive problems." Phthalates, she adds, have been linked to reproductive abnormalities in baby boys, reduced testosterone and sperm quality in men, as well as early puberty in girls. And formaldehyde—a preservative that lurks in many shampoos, conditioners, and even children's bubble bath—is a potent allergen that's classified as carcinogenic when inhaled.
Synthetic fragrances, too, are a red flag. "The word 'fragrance' can encompass any number of more than 3,000 ingredients, all of which are kept hidden from the public," says Leiba. "Some fragrance mixtures are known to include ingredients linked to hormone disruption, particularly phthalates, as well as skin sensitizers and allergens." Unfortunately, most of us are slathering dubious brews like these on our skin and hair every day.
Caring for the Skin You're In
Maybe Angela Jia Kim is lucky that she's allergic to parabens and synthetic fragrances—because even if they're not marked on a product's label, her body will let her know they are there. Yet Jia Kim, a former concert pianist, had to learn this the hard way. One night in 2005, before she walked onstage for a performance in Chicago, she reached for a bottle of "natural" lotion and applied it all over her body. As her fingers flew over the keys, she broke out in hives in front of hundreds of people. "After the concert, this guy comes up to me and says, 'You're as red as your gown.' I was humiliated," Jia Kim remembers. "I took a look at the ingredients, and I was shocked because there were all these chemicals in this so-called natural lotion. I've always had very sensitive skin, so I just thought, 'You know what? I'm going to create my own thing.'"
Back at her Manhattan apartment, Jia Kim started experimenting in her kitchen, making lotions and potions as a creative outlet. She soon got obsessed with the trial-and-error process of working with a range of simple ingredients such as olive oil and coconut. "I'm Korean, and Korean women are very serious about their beauty rituals," she says. "My goal was to create something that my mom and my sisters would end up using." It wasn't meant to be a business, but when she shared her creations with family and friends, they couldn't get enough. Eventually, they wanted to pay her for them. "I became this accidental entrepreneur," she says. On a lark, she hawked her products at a holiday pop-up shop in the city—and sold $40,000 worth of creams. Fast-forward to today, and her brand Savor Beauty (formerly Om Aroma & Co.) has a flagship spa in the West Village and a 5,000-square-foot facility, boutique, and spa in Saugerties, the production hub for her line of organic, "eco-chic" products, from cleaners and toners to serums and eye creams. This spring, a third spa location will open on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Mixed into each Savor Beauty product is a heap of wellness research and a heightened consciousness about health. During those early days when Jia Kim was experimenting in her apartment, it seemed like everyone she knew had cancer. "We have to ask ourselves questions. What deodorant are you using? How is it affecting you? What are you putting on your décolletage?" She was shocked to find that a seemingly natural product that her mother was using at the time had 55 ingredients, and the fifth ingredient was formaldehyde preservative. "Up to 60 percent of what you put on your body is absorbed into your bloodstream," says Jia Kim. "People have caught on to 'you are what you eat.' We need to start a revolution of 'you are what you put on' too."
Finding Shelter from a Chemical Storm
It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when we rub products onto our skin and nothing particularly terrible happens (most of us don't turn into a lobster). Yet most cancers don't show up in our bodies until years after a toxic insult, and chronic illnesses have multifactorial causes that are not so cut-and-dried. Many agree that the government needs to develop tougher requirements around proving that ingredients are safe before they become available on drugstore shelves. Until that happens, we can empower ourselves by reading labels carefully and voting with our wallets, which forces the market to change for the better. Change is happening, slowly. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates household cleaning products, recently took historic action by announcing that it would list the first 1,000 chemicals in need of urgent review. Under the newly updated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) legislation, the EPA will evaluate such chemicals as 1,4-Dioxane, a widely used carcinogen. Yet one drawback of the revised TSCA is that it does not cover cosmetics and other personal care products.