Toxic Planet

ToxicIn this article, I will cover two aspects of scare stories/claims made about cosmetic ingredients:

1)      We are gradually creating a “toxic planet” (an actual claim made in a LinkedIn discussion!)

2)      Modern synthetic chemicals don’t have the same history of human exposure/safe use

I have chosen to discuss these two claims because they are linked – by using numbers to demonstrate the argument.

Whilst there is no doubt that there ARE pollutants in the environment, and they are created by human activity, it seems that it is impossible for many commentators to maintain any sense of proportion about the extent to which this pollution exists, and the causes. It is not uncommon to see ALL synthetic chemicals being blamed, on the basis that they don’t break down in the environment, i.e. they accumulate, both in our bodies AND in the environment.  There is no evidence that the majority of synthetic chemicals (used in cosmetics) do anything other than degrade, some slowly, some rapidly; a few extremely slowly. Many studies have shown a presence of a number of synthetic substances in human urine. This presence demonstrates that the material is being excreted and, whilst it is possible that not the entire quantity of the substance to which the body is exposed is excreted, there are no studies demonstrating accumulation of these same substances in human tissues, as far as I am aware.

So, if our planet is becoming so “toxic”, why are we not dropping like flies from all the polluting synthetic chemicals?

If we take the world population figures from 1950 and examine them at intervals, we can see that it is not immediately apparent that our “toxic planet” is having much effect:









Source: U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base.

At the time of writing, the global population has now exceeded 7 billion. This is a global figure but let’s take the figures for a developed country (USA), where the possibility of contact with “thousands of toxics” is much greater:









Source: U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base.

The data for the USA should not be compared directly to the global figures, as populations increase or decrease at different rates in different regions, but the point is that there has been almost a 3-fold increase in world population in the 60 year period during which more synthetic substances have been made available than ever before, and a doubling of the USA population. If we go back a little further, to 1900, the world population was estimated at between 1.55 and 1.77 billion. It seems quite astonishing that such a massive growth in population can take place against the background of the rampant toxicity claimed by some. (“Toxic soup” is another favourite phrase used to describe the Armageddon that is apparently being created by synthetic substances!)

Moreover, another factor needs to be considered – longevity. Life expectancy in the USA (and all developed countries) has been steadily increasing since before 1900. In that year, an American could expect to enjoy absorbing toxic chemicals for 47 years; by 2000, this had increased dramatically to 77 years (SOURCE: E. Arias, “United States Life Tables, 2001,” National Vital Statistic Reports 52, no. 14 (2004): table 11). So, considering the massive increase in population in combination with an astonishing (and continuing)  increase in life span of that rapidly increasing population, it seems unlikely that cosmetics are quite as toxic as some would have us believe.

Moving on to the second topic – it is often claimed that natural substances must be safe because of their long history of safe use. This statement is facile because it only considers periods of time. It is not sufficient to claim that a certain substance has been used for over 2000 years. It is also necessary to consider the number of people exposed to the substance, and over what period of time each person is exposed.

Early archeological evidence suggests that cosmetics may have first been used in 4000 BC in Egypt. At that time, the world population is estimated to have been 7 million, although some estimates might suggest it could have been in the region of 20 million. As stated earlier, the total population was 1.77 billion by 1900. One way to assess the exposure to cosmetic ingredients could be to calculate the average population in one year and the maximum number of years each person could be exposed to these ingredients. It is not a perfect picture, and many assumptions and approximations must be included, but it does enable a comparison to be made between pre-1900 and post 1900 exposure on the slightly (?) flawed assumption that mostly natural ingredients were used before 1900 and mostly synthetic after 1900. The first problem is to estimate the average value for the world population between 4000 BC and 1900 AD, as the growth in population is mostly in evidence after 1750 with an increase from 961 million to 1.77 billion in only 150 years. Splitting these periods gives an average population of approximately 160 million between 4000 BC and 1750 AD, and 1.36 billion between 1750 and 1900. A typical life expectancy for most of the period from 4000 BC to 1750 AD was 30 years (less during the period of the Black Death!).  Life expectancy in more recent times has increased from 77 to 82 in the UK over the period from 1980 – 2006.

It is impossible to carry out a precise calculation, but it is very clear that the human population is many times greater in the past 100 years, and that most humans are also living much longer – well over double the life expectancy of around 250 years ago.

If it is assumed that all humans are exposed to cosmetics since 4000 BC (purely for the sake of comparison), there were far fewer humans around to be exposed for the first 5000 years compared with the last 100 years, and they were not living anywhere near as long. The significantly shorter lifespan means that exposure to natural substances was far less for each individual, and it could be argued (rather mischievously) that it may have been the use of unsafe natural substances that were responsible for the limited lifespan! Certainly lead poisoning from natural sources has been a factor in many deaths over the centuries, prior to a better understanding of chemistry and toxicology.

Taking a look from a different angle, using the ever-popular Head & Shoulders anti-dandruff shampoo as an example, this product was launched in 1961, and so has just over 50 years of exposure to a large population. Currently, 29 million bottles (250ml each) are reported to be sold each year. I can only guess at calculating how many different individual consumers are exposed based on that figure, but I will assume that each consumer uses 4 bottles each year (based on using 10ml each wash, and washing the hair 100 times each year). That equates to almost 7.5 million individuals being exposed to those (mostly synthetic) ingredients regularly and, presumably, over several years. I appreciate that a rinse-off product isn’t the best example for exposure, but it is the numbers that are important, rather than the actual product, as the exposure figures also work in the same way for leave-on products. Over 50 years (despite sales not always being at their current level), this adds up to a significant amount of exposure to a small number of substances, especially when one considers that most of the components are very common ingredients in many other personal care products.  I can find no evidence of adverse effects beyond the usual minor irritation suffered by a small minority of susceptible individuals. It is likely that 10s of millions of individuals have used that product over the 50 years since it was first launched; taking an average usage by 5 million consumers each year gives 250 million – an exposure figure that is surely equivalent to exposure to any widely-used natural substance (are there even any such substances that are so widely used?) over a much longer period of time.

One further point to consider is the fact that many of the “natural” ingredients being touted for use in cosmetics in more recent times often come from specific, limited locations, where the local exposure will be very restricted (i.e. to the local population) – these cannot begin to compare in mass exposure to a large proportion of the synthetic ingredients being used.

I realise that this is not the most coherent of arguments in terms of hard and fast numbers, but I hope that the basic principles that I have outlined are very clear.

In summary, given the massive increase in human population, the toxic effect claimed for synthetic ingredients in cosmetics is difficult to substantiate, and exposure to the natural ingredients being used in cosmetics should not be assumed to be safer than synthetic purely based on any history of use, as a long history of use on a small population may not be as indicative of safety as a relatively short history of use on a large population. Natural ingredients need to be assessed for safety just as much as synthetics!

I anticipate that some people may have interesting data to support (or destroy) my assertions, and that is what I am looking for here, as I see this article as the vehicle to initiate a healthy debate on the points I’ve raised!


  • Sagescript

    Hi Dene. Just a few comments.

    First on natural products which I will always defend. Of course it always depends on how ‘natural’ is defined. But I do believe that natural products that have a history can and should be considered safe. The FDA has granted the status of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) to many natural products because of their history. I have no idea how many years olive oil has been in use both as food and cosmetics but I am willing to say that it is long enough for us to assume its safety, same for chamomile tea.

    I also think there are some problems with lack of testing of modern chemicals in our environment. I do believe we may be at risk from modern pesticides, industrial wastes etc that may be in our air and ground water. These chemicals enter into everyday use before proper toxicity testing is done on them. And I do think these types of chemicals are much more risk to us than anything that would be found in a cosmetic since cosmetics are restricted from containing toxic substances.

    Our increase in lifespan is probably due much more to public health precautions that led to clean water and toilets than anything. But we do suffer alot of illnesses today that are increasing such as diabetes. I think its safe to say that the big three diseases; diabetes, cancer, heart disease are most tightly linked to lack of exercise and lack of fruits/vegetables in the diet more than anything else but I would like to see increased testing of new chemicals.

    I am not against chemical synthesis though and believe that as natural beings on this earth we are indeed capable of synthesizing natural products and
    chemistry is a natural process. Lets just make sure they are safe.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Thanks Cindy – I would expect no less from you! :-) First of all, I am in broad agreement with your comment about naturals that have a history probably being safe (although your example of olive oil – an extremely effective penetration enhancer – may not be the best under all circumstances). My comments are more aimed at those “newer” naturals that people are travelling the globe to discover – they DON’T have the same history of use across a large population. It’s all part of my never-ending battle to proclaim that naturals should not automatically be assumed to be safe.
      Your comments about the safety of “modern” chemicals may apply (up to a point) in the US, but they certainly don’t apply in the EU, where the level of regulation is now (and increasingly) very stringent (and rightly so) and the testing requirements are highly rigorous.
      In terms of increasing human longevity, I also agree that this is due mainly to the reasons you state, but that isn’t my point. It is the fact that we are not being killed off in droves by these “modern chemicals” that I am claiming. In other words, we are living longer despite the apparent attempts of the “evil chemical industry” to kill us all off! To listen to the doomsayers at whom this article is really aimed, you would think that no improvement in living conditions such as you describe could save us from the “toxic planet”.
      Safety is paramount – I would never argue about that, but too many people get concerned on the basis of hazard alone (and I’ve written about THAT in some detail in the past) – exposure is the key consideration – for ALL substances, irrespective of origin.

  • Marjo

    Thats a really looong article and seen discussions like this before. It almost is a religious viewpoint in debating route and standpoints. It make me think of a great vodcast actually.. It has touchpoints with this discussion so i do want to share it : it is called brainstorming with belugas and was a presentation of a biologist for designers. She draws some interesting views i think! AIGA in denver. Google it .. Really interesting

  • Katherine

    Although this article is fascinating, I must admit, my eyes crossed half way through it….and I am a researchaholic. Dene you are as comprehensive as always and I love your articles, however, I can’t help but think this article would be easier for the average consumer that visits PCT, to read and understand if it was broken up into two parts. And though the math and science I am sure are incredibly accurate, I personally found it overwhelming to read and then further comprehend without brain fry. JMHO!


    • Dene Godfrey

      Thanks Katie – yes, I agree – it IS quite long, and I did consider recalling it to split it up just before it was posted, but laziness overtook me. I wish I had split it up now :-(

  • Judith

    I mostly agree, but your choice of the H&S shampoo is unfortunate; I had corneal burns from using that shampoo. After research with various shampoo makers, I found out that my experience was not indeed rare. H&S also tried to tell me it must be my fault (I complained to them and to the FDA incident line), that I did not know how to use shampoo (I am in my 50’s, I think I do), etc. I would not use them or that shampoo as an example of a stellar safety record.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Thanks, Judith and, whilst my choice may have been unfortunate (I was unaware of the issues), the basic principle remains the same :-)

  • Trish

    I have never ever read so much crap in my life…. people are getting sicker and sicker because they are exposed to so many dangerous chemicals. Cancer is on the increase as well as infertility. But I guess why would someone working with preservatives tell people that they are bad? Its easier to tell them they are all good and make a lot of money that way.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Instead of being rude to me personally and professionally, Trish, why not provide some evidence for the claims you are making? And preferably in a logical and polite manner? Your comment doesn’t really help whatever argument it is that you are trying to make. Anyone can say “that’s wrong” and not offer any supporting evidence. Instead of wasting everyone’s time by being rude and making unsupported claims, may I suggest that you consider responding in the best way that would rescue any credibility you might like your contribution to have here – with evidence? Otherwise, you’d be better saying nothing.
      And, for the record, I make the same money whatever I sell, as I am employed on a salary by a company; I don’t work for myself. Your accusation is what is known as a “logical fallacy” – in other words, you are saying I am wrong simply because of what I do for a living. You need far better evidence than that, I’m afraid!

  • Dee

    Why “are we not dropping like flies?” ~ check out the statistics on disease and mortality. Spend a few years reading published medical research. This is more an opinion based article than anything. And I’m surprised to find it here, actually. To the point, I’d agree with another author listed who expresses that clients are aggravated to discover discrepancy between stated mission purpose and actual ingredients, or in this case, article above vs mission statement of this site. Certainly loses my assurance that information here is trustworthy. PS – I am here looking for information, not as a contributor or employee. It is not my responsibility to give information to support my opinion, it is the author’s, though I have spent years researching and studying the subject, hence my suggestion at the beginning.

    • Dene Godfrey

      For “an opinion-based article”, there are quite a lot of facts and figures provided. The point made is that, if synthetic chemicals are as dangerous as many would have us believe, how is it that the overall position of the human race is to massively increase in both numbers and longevity. Suggesting reading published medical research (for ANY length of time) doesn’t provide a counter to that argument. I HAVE provided the aformentioned information in support of my opinion – you have provided absolutely none in support of yours. In fact, it’s not even clear what is your opinion, other than being negative about the article. Why not actually provide the statistics on disease and mortality to counter the data I’ve published? This is no way to conduct a productive discussion. If you can prove that synthetic chemicals DO cause significant harm (with respect to cosmetics especially), then I will retract my comments and change my opinion.

  • Morpheus

    You dispute environmental toxicity with population statistics??? You are having a laugh aren’t you? Advancement in surgical techniques and prevention of infant mortality are two of the key drivers of increased lifespan. Even the EPA states indoor air quality (for example) as one of the top 5 risks to the public health. Perhaps you would do better looking at stats for the incidence of actual diseases and noting their correspondence with industrialization – in particular the voluminous data showing actual links between pollution incidents and increased disease. Oh and how about some actual toxicology reports? A huge number of petrochemicals are listed as carcinogenic – and yet it doesn’t matter to you that these are found in everyday products, from which they are absorbed and can be found in measurable quantities in the human system. No, because our lifespan is increasing, none of these chemicals can possibly be harming us. Who the heck are you working for?

    • Beautyscientist

      Hi Morpheus, if the only reason lifespans are increasing is surgery and improved infant mortality rates, wouldn’t the average age of death remain pretty constant? I don’t think that is the case.

      In fact we are not only living longer we have better health during our lives. If carcinogenic petrochemicals are having an adverse effect it can’t be a very big one.

      With respect to the EPA, I can’t find where they have published a list of public health risks. But whatever, until all public health risks are eliminated there will always be a list and there always has to be one at position 5 of that list.

      It may well be that the lifestyle and good health we enjoy today is unsustainable and that it relies on using up stored energy that can never be replaced. It could even be that the way we live gives us particular health problems that we wouldn’t have in less technologically advanced world. But for now the evidence is that we are indeed healthier, whoever Dene happens to be working for.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Morpheus, I can assure you that I’m not “having a laugh”. And I am not claiming that there is no such thing as environmental pollution by any means. If you read the article again with, perhaps, a slightly more critical eye, you might pick up that the point I was actually making was that, despite the many claims that we are creating a “toxic planet” (the clue’s in the title), there is no evidence that the situation is anywhere near as catastrophic as the “toxic planet” tag would suggest, and SPECIFICALLY in terms of the use of certain cosmetic ingredients. Your suggestion that I take a look at indoor health quality and stats for pollution incidents is well beyond the scope of the article. You are making an issue on grounds that were never intended to be within the scope of the article, so your points are not relevant to what I was claiming. I am not saying they are not relevant at all, but if you are commenting on the article (which, after all IS the point of commenting here), they are superfluous to MY point. If you missed what that point was, please the penultimate paragraph again – it begins “In summary . . . ”
      You claim “a huge number of pertochemicals are listed as carcinogenic”. How many constitute this huge number, and where exactly are they listed please? Which ones have been found to be asborbed and in what quanitites have they been detected in humans? And when you have substantiated these claims, can you also provide links to studies that prove the same carcinogenic substances have been proven to cause adverse health effects? I ask for this supporting data on the basis that, whilst many substances may be determined to be carcinogenic, they do not neccesarily pose any significant risk to human health due to the exposure being insufficient. Formaldehyde is one such example – a known carcinogen, but one which is produced in our own bodies; hence there are safe levels of exposure, If you cannot provide the information I’ve requested, your point remains speculation on your part. I am not especially interested in speculation; I am more interested in demonstrating that the claims of cosmetic ingredients contributing measurably towards a “toxic planet” are grossly exaggerated. If you have information that disproves that, I am interested, regardless of who I may be working for at the time you provide the information.