Sight Unseen: Uncovering Carcinogens in Cosmetics | MIT Center for Civic Media

Sight Unseen: Uncovering Carcinogens in Cosmetics

People go about their daily routine unaware of the risks they may encounter by using their personal "care" products, the very products meant to keep them looking and feeling healthy. This is an issue that only recently came to my attention, and through conversation I quickly realized that many others knew little to nothing about it as well. My inquiries led me to the topic for my Introduction to Civic Media final project "Sight Unseen: Uncovering Carcinogens in Cosmetics." After some initial research, I interviewed a few classmates about the topic to gauge their level of awareness. See if you can answer the questions I asked:

1. What personal care products do you use daily?
2. What ingredients are in the personal care products you use daily?
3. What do you want to know about the personal care products you use daily?

If you don’t have clear answers to each of these questions, you’re not alone. My classmates were stumped by the questions, proving even more to me the need for more information and action related to the chemicals in cosmetics. Please take a look at the video I put together a video of their responses.

You may not realize at first just how many personal care products you use daily. Perhaps you recognize that you use shampoo, conditioner and deodorant. But don’t forget to include lip balm, nail polish, sunscreen or lotion if you use them too. The average American woman uses “12 cosmetic products with 168 unique ingredients each day” and the average American man uses “6 products with 85 ingredients.” [1]

Cosmetics are defined under the United States law as, “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body...for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.” This includes “skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup, cleansing shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, and deodorants, as well as any substance intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product. It does not include soap.” [2]

The United States Food and Drug Administration is in charge of cosmetics in America, but it cannot actually regulate the ingredients in cosmetics. This means that cosmetics are one of the least regulated categories of products “89 percent of all ingredients in cosmetics have not […] evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution.” [3]

Organizations other than the FDA have done research about cosmetics that are on the market and found that there are chemicals in every day products that have negative effects on the body, like endocrine disruptors, have altering, drug-like effects.

Although, according to current law, the FDA can do little to prevent the use of these chemicals, some states have made their own rules. California is one of the states in the US that has recognized the failing system of regulation and has instituted their own.

In general, however, the United States approaches this issue differently than other countries. The European Union embraces the “precautionary principle” which is the idea that “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” [4] The U.S. does not use this approach to the extent that the European Union and other nations do, as shown by the number of banned cosmetics in the United Sates versus other nations: “more than 500 products sold in the U.S. contain ingredients banned in cosmetics in Japan, Canada or the European Union.” [5] We essentially pay the cosmetic industry to use our bodies for their experiments.

Some action is being taken to move forward legislation locally and nationally and to implement reforms both publicly and privately. There is, however, an enormous amount of work still to be done. That's why I created “Sight Unseen”. The purpose of the Tumblr and Twitter sites are to call attention to the carcinogens that are lurking in shampoos, sunscreens, lotions, among other cosmetics. Cosmetics are products meant to improve appearance, but hidden in them are potentially dangerous chemicals. With Sight Unseen I aim to begin to uncover the problem in all its complexity and to inform people of simple but meaningful actions they can take.

Although my Intro to Civic Media journey ends here, I intend to continue the project into the next semester and beyond. Please provide any feedback, concerns, comments, or questions so that this project can be more effective in revealing to people about what is hidden in plain sight.

[1] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “Low-Dose Exposure.” Accessed December 15, 2013.
[2] The United States Food and Drug Administration. "What kinds of products are 'cosmetics' under the law?" Accessed December 20, 2013.
[3] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "FDA Regulations." Accessed December 20, 2013.
[4] Silent Spring Institute. “The Precautionary Principle.” Accessed December 15, 2013.
[5] Environmental Working Group. “Myths On Cosmetic Safety.” Accessed December 15, 2013.