Women can find anxiety everywhere these days, as evidenced by a recent trip down the magazine aisle: “Need aspirin– or an ambulance? How to diagnose the four scariest aches and pains.” “Are YOU a great manager?” “Displaying this emotion can endanger your life.”
And, appropriately enough, “Stress: Is it making you sick?”
As if women don’t have enough to worry about, some activists are trying to expand the list to include our makeup drawer. This month, a conference held at Harvard Medical School by Hurricane Voices, an activist organization focusing on breast cancer, will warn women of the “dangers” presented by items from face lotion to perfume. Activists in California, meanwhile, are urging high school girls to throw out their “dangerous” cosmetics in “Operation Beauty Drop.” In Europe, activists have convinced the government to ban the use of certain substances, known as phthalates, in cosmetics.
So are women being silently massacred by our mascara? Not exactly. In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the effects of these substances on rats. Analysts concluded that rats that became ill had absorbed the equivalent of four and a half bottles of nail polish a day for 70 years. The Food and Drug Administration examined this and other data and concluded that these ingredients are safe as used in cosmetics.
Why, then, did the European Union ban the use of phthalates in cosmetics? Because something called the “precautionary principle” says, in effect, we must assume every chemical is dangerous until it’s proven safe.
Proving something safe, of course, is an impossibly high standard. No one can prove that something will never, ever be harmful. But it’s a principle that these activists want to apply to our cosmetics.
Each day, people take calculated risks when we decide how to get to work and what to have for lunch. There is always a possibility of danger, but the risks need to be kept in perspective. Unfortunately, oftentimes, people overestimate some risks and overlook others. People who inflate the likelihood of a plane crash may opt to make a cross-country drive– actually increasing their odds of having a deadly accident.
But when it comes to cosmetics, an element of political correctness may also fuel this debate. Leftist feminists tend to resent women’s efforts to achieve physical attractiveness. Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” focused on the detrimental impact that the quest for beauty plays in women’s lives. Feminists regularly attack women’s magazines that glorify often unattainable images of beauty and complain that women’s vanity is a product of a patriarchal society that compels women to attract and please men.
This worldview may explain why feminist activists focus on the speculative “dangers” of cosmetics, but are less enthusiastic about discussing other controllable health risks.
For example, Womens eNews, a feminist Web magazine, has run multiple articles on the speculative link between breast cancer and makeup but has largely ignored obesity’s far stronger link to cancer.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 300,000 deaths per year may be attributable to obesity. A study by the American Cancer Society highlighted the strong link between obesity and cancer: Researchers estimated that as many as 90,000 cancer deaths in the United States each year may be weight related. This makes obesity second only to smoking (linked to 170,000 annual deaths) as a cause of cancer.
Of course, it’s essential that researchers keep studying cosmetics to ensure that they do not contain substances that could harm consumers. Consumers should also strive to be educated, and take advantage of the marketplace that allows them to vote with their dollars. Those who are completely risk averse can opt for phthalate-free cosmetics– but then they shouldn’t travel in a car to buy them.
In all areas of life– from cars to the foods we eat and products we use– it’s important to keep risks in perspective and not fixate on miniscule, unproven dangers. In this case, women might be surprised to know that if they really want to reduce the likelihood of cancer, putting down the bag of potato chips and hitting the gym will do far more than throwing out their makeup bag.