Image by averie woodard — via Unsplash

Toxic Beauty — a data story

Maryam Khezrzadeh
Think Dirty
6 min readMar 7, 2016


The first time I became aware of harmful chemicals in cosmetics was in early 2000s when a story about “lead in lipstick” was circulating through email and word of mouth. One was instructed to use a gold ring and rub a sample of lipstick on a surface; if any black substance appeared, the lipstick contained lead — or other heavy metals. We did that; We watched the streaks of black forming as we rubbed the pink and red lipsticks on our skin with gold rings.

The unsettling truth about cosmetics and personal care products is beautifully summarized in the Story of Cosmetics. The seven minute animation film tells us there are toxic chemicals in our everyday personal care products: in shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, perfume, nail polish, baby powder.

The Story of Cosmetics: co-created and released by The Story of Stuff Project and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

There are mountains of scientific evidence that link these chemicals to breast cancer, childhood cancers, learning disabilities, asthma, infertility, ADD and other diseases that have been rising in recent decades. Some babies are coming to this world, already contaminated. Mutations in genes can’t account for these increases in just a few years. What can explain the rising rate of hormone-related cancers and other health problems, is our unprecedented exposure to toxic chemicals. “All of us today share something unshared by countless generations of humans who lived before us: we carry man-made pollutants in our bodies.

An average American teenager uses 17 different products a day, exposing herself to more than 150 chemicals. This everyday exposure continues throughout her lifetime. An average American woman uses 12 products a day. American man? 6.

Many of these chemicals are hormone-altering. They disrupt signals in the body that regulate metabolism, growth, reproduction, sleep and mood. Hormone-altering chemicals are more problematic at lower doses than higher ones, so even small traces found in everyday products should concern us. More than a third of common everyday products reviewed by EWG, contain high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Why are these products even on the shelves? Because multi billion dollar beauty industry can use almost any ingredient they wish. They are not required to disclose all ingredients on product labels and they can name their products natural and organic without having a single natural ingredient in them. There is no law to prevent them from doing so. Beauty industry is one of the least regulated industries in the U.S. Regulations in Canada and European Union are much stricter. However, there are still many chemicals of concern used in cosmetics and personal care products sold in these countries as well.

Who are these companies?

To answer this question, I visited EWG’s Skin Deep Database. EWG researchers launched Skin Deep in 2004 to create online profiles of cosmetics and personal care products and their potential hazards and health concerns. Because of the hard work of Jane Houlihan and her research team, women are starting to think they are putting on chemicals, not makeup.

The graph below summarizes more than 1600 company profiles on Skin Deep. The big 7 companies which are labeled on the graph, manufacture most of the cosmetics and personal care products sold on the market today and the majority of these products have medium to high hazard scores according to Skin Deep’s scoring framework. For example, only 3 out of a 100 products made by Procter & Gamble have a green score on Skin Deep.

The beauty titans collectively own more than 120 brands. This multi-brand strategy grants them a greater space in the market. They sell similar products under different brand names to target maximum number of buyers with varying expectations of price and quality and to create an illusion of choice on store shelves. More than 500 green companies on the other end of the spectrum do not follow the same strategy. Pioneers like Dr. Bronner’s set excellent examples of how a company can be successful making responsible products of the highest quality. All you need is a man who is committed to making a better world.

Brands owned by Procter&Gamble, L’Oréal, Unilever, Estée Lauder, Johnson&Johnson, Revlon and Avon companies

Aside from those owned by the big 7 beauty companies, the following brands are also among the most popular across the globe, selling products that have moderate to high hazard scores in at least 80% of cases.

Other popular brands of cosmetics and personal care products. At least %80 of the products made by any of these brands have moderate to high hazard scores on SkinDeep.

Do these products need toxic chemicals in them to make us clean and shiny? No. In almost all cases effective and safe alternatives are already being made by thriving green companies. Toxic beauty is the legacy of 1950s when people were totally swept up in “better living through chemistry”. Companies hesitate to change their old formulations because they don’t want to spend money. That’s why they do whatever they can to defeat efforts to shift the beauty industry away from hazardous chemicals.

70 years later, we have connected these chemicals to our sicknesses. We know more than half of all breast cancer cases can’t be explained by risk factors such as genetics, diet or reproductive history. We have evidence linking exposures to chemicals and radiation in our everyday environments to increased breast cancer risk. Yet, the beauty industry manufactures doubt and ignorance about science. It positions itself as the leader in the war against breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease. The industry over-emphasizes early detection and cure without willing to look at the causes of cancer, and in this way, it diverts public attention from equally important prevention strategies. The message the beauty industry is sending women is: you are going to get cancer, but we’ll help cure it and help you “Look Good, Feel Betteralong the way.

What else does the data tell us?

An analysis of the SkinDeep data reveals the relative safety of different types of beauty and personal care products. For example, most styling mousse on the market are toxic. It is harder to find safe styling mousse than it is to find a non-toxic bar of soap. The word cloud below summarizes these findings. Larger word size means relatively fewer safe alternatives are available on the market for that category. If you want to begin your journey towards safe cosmetics, start by reviewing the products you regularly use that are more likely to be toxic: hair styling products, hair colour, tanning products, sunscreen, perfume and nail polish.

A measure of the safety of different types of products. Size is calculated as the ratio of non-green to green products. Colour is proportional to size and changes from red, for types that are most likely to be toxic than non toxic, to forest green to indicate the abundance of safe options on the market.

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has a set of tips on beauty and personal care products. The first tip is simplicity: choose products with simpler ingredient lists and fewer synthetic chemicals. This is in fact a very sound advice. The chart below shows how the average hazard score increases as more ingredients are used in a product.

Nevertheless, choosing safe cosmetics doesn’t have to be a guessing game. Applications like ThinkDirty enable you to scan products in the store to check their hazard score before buying them. ThinkDirty also helps you discover new brands and products that provide safer options. EWG Verified standard is another great way to get to know responsible companies.

The good news is that the message of natural products is breaking through to mainstream culture. As more consumers become aware of the chemical soup we are living in, they will see value in natural and organic alternatives. This new quest for beauty leads not only to eliminating toxins from our bodies and our minds but to a deeper realization of how everything is connected: the economy, the legislature, science and nature.

The real solution to toxic beauty is having laws that prevent companies from using toxic ingredients; It will take a major mobilization of all of us who are affected by the ugly side of the beauty industry, to pass legislations that will shift the industry away from hazardous chemicals. Let’s help clean up this mess.



Maryam Khezrzadeh
Think Dirty

I build software, I write data stories and in my mind, philosophy, religion and science do not contradict. Ask me why; I love conversations.