Lead in lipstick, formaldehyde in hair straighters, hormone disruptors in face cream. Beauty often comes with bad news these days, overwhelming eco-beauty seekers who don't know how to start cleaning up their beauty routine. That's where a new book by Samuel S. Epstein — "Healthy Beauty: Your Guide to Ingredients to Avoid and Products You Can Trust" — may help.

You may already know Epstein as the author of the 1995 book, "The Safe Shopper's Bible." Now, with "Healthy Beauty," Epstein provides an updated look at the problem plaguing modern beauty products — which, for the most part, remain unchanged.

As regular MNN readers know, the cosmetics industry is largely unregulated. "Healthy Beauty" gives a bird's-eye view of the problem, pointing out that the FDA neither reviews products before they go on store shelves nor has the proper authority to take those products off the market — even when they've been shown to be dangerous. Add to that the cosmetics industry's often deceitful practices — which underplay the dangers of the cheap chemicals and exaggerate the FDA's involvement in the regulation process — and you've got a pretty problem indeed. To drive his point home, Epstein focuses on increasing cancer rates, which he says provide the hardest numbers that show this lack of regulation's creating serious human harm.

After an overview of the problem at hand, Epstein goes on to devote a chapter each to specific product types — from baby products to nail salon chemicals — mentioning the dangerous ingredients to avoid in each group and identifying green alternatives. Each of these chapters ends with a list of recommended products, but these short lists usually contain just one or two products best-liked by Epstein, and are by no means a comprehensive list of options.

Epstein's more scientific-focused bent makes "Healthy Beauty" a much wonkier read than, say, "No More Dirty Looks," last year's green beauty book that tackles the same topics, but with a girlier, more personal, and more practical-minded tone. "Healthy Beauty," on the other hand, boasts more scientific jargon, long lists of tough-to-read chemicals, and even a breakdown of carcinogens into three subgroups — all somewhat tougher to get through for the average reader, but nicely detailed for research-minded types.

If you're the type who would tear out a four-page, tightly typed list of chemicals to avoid — and remember to carry it around with you to whip out and cross-compare with small-print ingredient lists whenever you're shopping for cosmetics — then this book is for you, as Epstein provides that four-pager at the back of the book. If your eyes tend to glaze over when reading scientific studies, however, you'll likely be better off picking up "No More Dirty Looks" — if you're just going to read one book.

For me, "Healthy Beauty" did drive home some unique issues — like the undertesting of even natural ingredients and the potential harm they can cause in our bodies. Here's one concern Epstein raises that got my attention:

Lavender and tea tree oils pose another kind of hormone disruption dilemma: Breast enlargement, technically known as gynecomastia, has been reported in three boys, ranging from four to ten years old, following repeated use of scented soap, shampoo, and a "healing" balm containing tea tree or lavender oils. Laboratory tests have also confirmed that both oils possess weak estrogenic and anti-testosterone effects.
Could this be true — and should I be worried that my conditioner contains tea tree oil? I checked on Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetic safety database — to find that both lavender and tea tree oils were ranked a safe 0 and 1. So I asked EWG's senior Scientist Rebecca Sutton for a rundown. Her take:
There is a single, well-cited case study suggesting these oils are hormone disruptors, but we haven't yet turned up more data on this concern or many others in the scientific literature. You'll see this study cited in our Skin Deep scores (Henley et al. 2007), and we're definitely keeping an eye out for more information. The safety of long-term, extensive use of essential oils in the amounts that are now found in many products has never been adequately demonstrated; unfortunately, you could say the same thing about many other ingredients in cosmetic products. There are concerns that some people may develop allergic sensitivities (for example, lavender sensitivity is becoming more common); but the real risks of large-scale use remain under-investigated. It's certainly important to note that naturally-derived ingredients cannot be assumed to be risk-free, and that all cosmetic ingredients, natural or synthetic, ought to be getting thorough safety testing. With the deplorable lack of safety standards for personal care products in the U.S., that isn't likely to happen without some dramatic reform of the FDA.
Not exactly a satisfying answer — but then that goes for pretty much everything that has to do with products we use these days. Personally, I'm going to worry more about products that already have a more fearsome ranking on Skin Deep — and put my voice behind reforming policies to make for safer personal care products. EWG currently has a petition circulating that demands that Congress take action to make these products safer. Have you signed it?

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