Beauty and the Beast

What green chemistry teaches us about the hidden toxic ingredients in our beauty products.

Lea Haehnel ’20 couldn’t wait to wear makeup. “When I was finally allowed to, it was a big deal,” recalls Haehnel, a biochemistry major and public health minor. Foundation, eyeliner, eye shadow, lipstick and blush became part of her beauty regimen, along with perfume and scented lotion. And as a young woman of color, she applied hot oil to her hair to keep it from drying. “I didn’t think twice about what was in the products I used,” she says.

One day, curious about how hair relaxers—commonly used by African-American women—worked, the then-freshman asked her chemistry professor Rich Gurney about them. Not only did he describe the process, he explained that the ingredients in them could harm her. “I was shocked,” she recalls. In ongoing conversations with Gurney as well as in public health and mechanistic chemistry classes, she learned that plenty of other products are risky, too. Stunned, she simplified her beauty regimen, bought safer products and found her calling. “I am angry about what is happening,” she says. “I want to stand up and fight.”

Gurney, co-chair of the department of chemistry and physics, isn’t surprised by Haehnel’s response. He has seen similar reactions in students when they discover the truth about the cosmetics—the category includes personal care products—they use. He also introduces them to the tenets of green chemistry, which encourage the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate hazardous substances, from carcinogens to endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that may interfere with hormones, affecting fertility and child development as well as immune and nervous system functioning, and raising cancer risk.

“Green chemistry is benign by design, both for human health and the environment,” says Gurney, who began teaching the discipline at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in 2001 and brought it to Simmons two years later. “My ultimate goal, and the goal of all green chemists, is that green chemistry isn’t separate. It is part of chemistry. It is how chemistry should be taught.”

From incorporating green chemistry into lectures, to using green processes to design preparation methods, to rethinking lab research protocols, the principles of green chemistry “seep into the curriculum every possible chance we get,” explains Gurney, a founding member of the Green Chemistry Education Network, which works to integrate green chemistry principles into chemistry curricula from elementary school through college. He is also a founding faculty board member of the Green Chemistry Commitment, a network of college and university chemistry faculty members who have pledged to teach green chemistry.

Gurney’s contributions to the field are being noticed. “Many universities have individuals who embrace green chemistry,” says John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Wilmington, Mass. “You walk through the doors of Simmons and say, ‘This is a green chemistry department.’ Rich has been brilliant at finding ways to make green chemistry not only a department-level effort, but also an entire Simmons community effort, and that is very rare.”

“Green chemistry is benign by design, both for human health and the environment.” —Chemistry Professor Rich Gurney

Warner, also an adjunct professor of chemistry at Simmons, is himself part of this evolution. Green chemistry gained traction as a field 20 years ago when he co-authored Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, the seminal textbook on the discipline.

At Simmons, exposure to green chemistry isn’t confined to the classroom. For the past three years, the generosity of Simmons alumna and Trustee Emerita Linda Kotzen Paresky ’64, ’99HD has made it possible for students in a first-year class Gurney teaches to attend the annual fall gala at the Newton-based Silent Spring Institute. The nonprofit researches the links between the environment and women’s health—especially breast cancer. Students get to rub shoulders with physicians, researchers, public health advocates and other experts committed to making products safer.

Also, Silent Spring researchers have lectured at Simmons and, in turn, Simmons students have worked with the institute on various projects, including the Healthy Green Campus Initiative, which encourages students to make environmentally conscious choices in such areas as the clothing and furnishings they buy, the food they eat and the consumer products they use. Students helped finesse the institute’s free Detox Me™ app, designed to help people reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals. For three years, Simmons students collaborated with the institute on a research project about the effects of a regulation change on the use of flame retardants in building materials and public spaces in Boston.

“Simmons students are very enthusiastic about the issue of chemicals in products,” says Robin Dodson, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute. “They are also very thoughtful about what it means to do something scientifically rigorous and about the impact that science could have.”

Beauty’s Ugly Side

Not only has Haehnel learned about the hazardous substances lurking in many products, she has studied health disparities in her public health classes and discovered that many African-American women use a disproportionate number of cosmetics that may harm their health. Indeed, researchers at the Silent Spring Institute recently analyzed the chemicals in 18 different hair products commonly used by women of color, including hot oil treatments, anti-frizz polishes, leave-in conditioners and hair relaxers, and detected a total of 45 endocrine disruptors. Each product studied contained anywhere from 4 to 30 of them.

Compelled to do something, Haehnel vowed to find out what products her fellow students were using and how knowledgeable they were about what was in them.

As it happened, one requirement of an organic chemistry class taught by Gurney is to develop a project idea and write a grant proposal for it. Haehnel decided that would be the perfect vehicle for answering the questions she had. “She really took it upon herself to create a research study that is applicable to her peers,” says Gurney. To fund her work, Haehnel, then a sophomore, applied for the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Simmons (SURPASs) and was one of 18 applicants selected for the prestigious internship. (It is underwritten by grants from alumni and friends, including trustees Pamela Toulopoulos ’73 and Regina Pisa as well as the Office of the Provost.)

Haehnel christened her project Catching Shade. “It’s a play on words,” she explains. “If someone doesn’t have the best intentions towards you, that person is throwing shade. I believe the cosmetics industry is throwing shade at women of color as well as at clean, or green, beauty.”

“I believe the cosmetics industry is throwing shade at women of color as well as at clean, or green, beauty.” —Biochemistry major Lea Haehnel ’20

Over the course of this past summer, she surveyed a diverse group of 45 Simmons students about the cosmetics they use, their familiarity with the ingredients they contain and their concerns about adverse effects. She then used various apps to research the ingredients in products used by study participants and their potential health impact. (See “Four Guides to Greener Beauty,” below.) When she shared the findings with her subjects, they were stunned, recalls Haehnel. “They believe there is somebody out there making sure products are safe but that is not necessarily the case.”

The summer internship ended, but Haehnel has recently been awarded a semester-long Simmons Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant that will fund her continuing work on the project. Her next step: developing an experiment that will allow her to analyze the products used by survey participants. “I want to find out what is actually in them, since you can’t really trust labels,” she says. “A company may say ‘This is an official ingredient,’ but there may be other substances in a product it might not want to disclose.”

Closing Loopholes Is a Must

Discovering that the products they lather into their scalps, slather on their skin and apply to their faces can be hazardous to their health may be an eye-opener for Gurney’s students, but it is an issue about which he has long been passionate. All consumer products, including cosmetics, need to be scrutinized more carefully, he maintains.

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, designed to make products safer by excluding harmful substances from cosmetics, drugs, food and pesticides, allowed substances already in the marketplace to remain. “They were determined to be OK only on the merits that they were already in consumer products,” says Gurney. While the act was amended in 2016 empowering the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate the safety of chemicals in products, the EPA doesn’t have the resources needed to assess thousands of potentially harmful substances, adds Gurney. What’s more, while the FDA regulates drugs, it lacks the authority to review ingredients in cosmetics for safety. (Though color additives are subject to FDA approval, coal-tar hair dyes are not.)

Also, because of a so-called fragrance loophole, many harmful chemicals may be hidden in cosmetics. “Fragrance is loosely defined,” explains Gurney. “What industry has done is use that loophole to list any chemicals it doesn’t want consumers to know are in their products.” For example, emulsifier, which keeps a product from separating, is an endocrine disruptor, but is typically listed as a fragrance on product labels even though it isn’t. “We use these products and have absolutely no idea of the long-term effects on human health and the environment,” he says.

Indeed, a recent study by Northwestern University researchers in Chicago found that from 2004 to 2016, more than 5,100 adverse events associated with cosmetics and other personal care products were reported to the FDA, an average of 396 per year. Hair and skin care products topped the list.

Other countries are light years ahead of the United States when it comes to protecting consumers. Whereas the European Union has banned or restricted more than 1,500 chemicals from cosmetics and Canada has done so for more than 800, the United States has banned or restricted only 11, according to a recent article in JAMA Internal Medicineco-authored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

There have been attempts to set things right. Most recently, in May 2017, Senators Feinstein and Collins introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act that would, among other things, empower the FDA to review the chemicals allowed in cosmetics for safety, create a uniform safety standard, prohibit unsafe products from reaching the market and require countries that ship such products to the United States to disclose ingredients. But the bill is still in the first stage of the legislative process and needs to be reviewed by a committee before it can be sent to the House or Senate.

Government needs to do a better job of regulating cosmetics, but chemists need to step up to the plate, too, maintains Gurney. “Current regulations empower lazy, uninspired chemists to continue the status quo rather than invent new, better solutions,” he says.

Gurney is optimistic that his students will be the catalyst for change. “They question laboratory processes, asking, ‘Why are we doing that? We can do it better. Why are we analyzing that way? How can we do it greener?’” he says. “Students in my first-year course who haven’t yet declared a major have found a passion for doing good by going into chemistry.” Haehnel, who rethought her career trajectory because of her exposure to green chemistry, is a prime example. “I now see science and chemistry as a way to make a difference in the world and solve many public health issues,” she says.

After her 2019 graduation, Haehnel plans to become either a researcher, so she can create safer products, or an obstetrician-gynecologist, treating hormonal disorders that may be linked to personal care products. Regardless of the career path she takes, she’s certain of one thing: “I want to continue doing this kind of work.”

Gurney believes other Simmons students will also rise to the challenge, whether they become chemists or public health advocates or policymakers. Change, he explains, “isn’t just about educating scientists. It’s about educating society.” And for him, it can’t come soon enough. “If we could have an army of Lea Haehnels, change would happen much faster,” he says.