The ‘Nontoxic’ Scam: Scaremongering, For Fun And Profit

Joseph Perrone Chief Science Officer, Center for Accountability in Science
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What do Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Environmental Working Group have in common? They all make money by convincing consumers that every day cosmetics and other personal care products aren’t safe. And these marketing ploys to promote their expensive product endorsements are hurting more than just customers’ wallets — these unscientific claims have serious public health consequences.

Jessica Alba started her “Honest Company” to provide parents “nontoxic” alternatives to baby products. Now, her billion dollar company has expanded beyond diapers to sunscreens and other products. Unfortunately, her customers are learning the hard way that “chemical free” products don’t necessarily work as intended.

Lathering up with sunscreen is supposed to prevent sunburn, which dermatologists and scientific research warn is the precursor to skin cancer — it’s why we pull kids kicking and screaming out of the pool every two hours to reapply. But Alba’s sunscreen has received a rash of criticism on social media, where customers are complaining about painfully red skin. Judging by the customer outrage, it appears Honest Company’s sunscreen doesn’t do much to protect from the sun’s rays.

Most sunscreens contain between 18 and 25 percent zinc oxide, the broadest spectrum deflector of UVA and UVB rays approved for sunscreens by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. An independent test of the Honest Company’s product found it contained a mere 9.3 percent zinc oxide. It’s no wonder Twitter users flocked to tweet their lobster skin pictures at Alba’s company.

Many consumers were probably steered to the Honest Company’s product because of its stellar marks from the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide. According to EWG, the sunscreen is “a top choice for sun protection” and “based on our modeling this product provides EXCELLENT UVA protection and a GOOD balance of UVA protection in relation to SPF.”

So why did EWG give high marks to sunscreen that doesn’t work?

For nearly a decade, the activist group has been ranking sunscreens to steer consumers away from products containing oxybenzone and vitamin A — common sunscreen ingredients dermatologists (and lots of scientific research) say don’t pose any risk to our health.

The lack of scientific evidence for their arbitrary ranking system doesn’t stop EWG from giving top marks to products like Alba’s and other “natural” sunscreens that can cost more than $30 for just two ounces. In fact, EWG profits from its misguided recommendations. If you purchase one of EWG’s recommended sunscreens through the Amazon link on its website, Amazon sends a portion of the price you pay back to EWG.

EWG isn’t just whipping up consumer fears about sunscreen. It’s “Skin Deep” database similarly ranks the “safety” of thousands of cosmetics. (Purchases through the database’s Amazon link also send a kick-back to EWG.)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle blog for the extremely wealthy, GOOP, regularly promotes the database as a source to find “clean, non-toxic beauty.” She’s now teamed up with a natural products company to produce her own line of organic cosmetics, telling Fox Business the cosmetics industry is using ingredients that are “potentially carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting, that are really not good for you.”

Yet none of these “harmful” ingredients demonized by cosmetic critics actually pose significant risk to consumers.

For example, parabens, used as preservatives to prevent bacteria growth, actually have less estrogenic activity than the estrogen that naturally occurs in our bodies. And because they’re used in such low levels in cosmetics, research published in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology concluded “it is implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals.”

Another target is butylated hydroxyanisol (BHA), also used as a preservative. Though the National Toxicology Program says BHA could be a carcinogen, it’s only problematic at extremely high doses — much higher than the levels used in cosmetics.

The FDA can certainly do more to test and regulate the ingredients in cosmetics and sunscreen. Legislation pending in Congress, the Personal Care Products Safety Act, would give the FDA more authority and is supported by both industry and environmental groups like EWG. But even if the bill isn’t passed, it doesn’t mean the thousands of products on store shelves aren’t safe. Consumers who buy the Hollywood hype around “nontoxic” products won’t protect themselves from harmful chemicals, but they do risk getting burned by profiteering celebrities and activist groups.

Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education. CORE is supported by a variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture, and energy industries.