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Lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, perfume: Jessica Assaf applied them all, and more, before she hit 12. By her midteens, she estimates, she was using 15 to 20 beauty products a day. Like many girls, Assaf was indoctrinated into beauty culture at a young age, with makeover-themed birthday parties as early as kindergarten and trips to the nail salon starting in grade school.
“The coolest thing was Hard Candy nail polish with the ring on the bottle. I really wanted that ring,” says Assaf, now 18. “Companies do a really good job of trying to attract younger girls.”
Indeed. Consider the Hannah Montana Backstage Makeover Set for children 5 to 7 years, Barbie Makeup games, and spa services with names like “Twinkle Toes and Fancy Fingers” that offer manicures and facials to kids age 6 and up. Popular hair-straightening products called “Just For Me!” feature 7-year-old girls on the box. Getting your hair colored is now practically a rite of passage in middle school.
“Five years ago, the rule of thumb was 15- to 16-year-olds would come in for their first color. Now, that girl is 10,” Mark Goodman, a board member of the National Cosmetology Association (NCA), recently told the New York Times. The trend, according to NCA spokesman Gordon Miller, represents a “lucrative niche market” for the beauty industry.
This rush to cosmetic beauty also represents increased exposure to toxic chemicals. Scientists now suspect that chemicals found in many of the cosmetics for which young girls clamor contribute to a disturbing trend. Girls in the United States, especially African American girls, are entering puberty earlier than their grandmothers did. Half of all American girls now show signs of breast development by age 10—one to two years earlier than 40 years ago—and a significant number show signs as early as 8 or 9.
While the physical changes of puberty are diligently noted (especially by classmates), the changes that take place within the brain often go without remark. In order to accommodate new powers of abstract thinking and adult socialization behaviors, the brain becomes less flexible. As that happens, it becomes harder to learn complex skills such as playing a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language, or mastering a sport.
“Girls now have, on average, a year and a half less to learn these things,” says biologist Sandra Steingraber, who has published extensive work on environmental links to cancer and reproductive health. “Over the course of just a few decades, the childhoods of U.S. girls have been significantly shortened. This has huge implications.”
The implications don’t stop at learning skills. Girls who enter puberty earlier are at higher risk for breast cancer and depression, and are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as drinking and unprotected sex. The situation has many parents wondering what, if anything, they can do to slow the onset of puberty.
One answer, Steingraber says, might be found in eliminating the chemical-laden products girls use to look more grown-up.
Take Assaf’s old beauty routine. According to an analysis from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com), the 15 products in her routine—from shampoo and deodorant to lotion and makeup—contained more than 100 chemical ingredients. Her daily dose included several carcinogens and more than two dozen hormone-disrupting chemicals, such as parabens (a common preservative) and phthalates (often found in fragrance).
While cosmetic manufacturers argue that each product contains only a small amount of any given chemical, chronic exposure from multiple products—especially during sensitive developmental years—has scientists concerned. “We have to worry about the windows of exposure: exposures when mom is pregnant, when baby is born, in early childhood, and throughout puberty,” says Maryann Donovan, scientific director at the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Donovan is particularly concerned about products, such as hair pomades, marketed to African American girls, and worries that toxic chemical ingredients found in many of them might contribute to early puberty and high rates of breast cancer common among young African Americans.
Although research also links early puberty to low birth weight, obesity, physical inactivity, and other factors that are, to varying extents, within our control, Steingraber says we need to adopt strict policies that eliminate harmful chemicals from skin care and other products. “I believe there is enough evidence to support banning any chemical known in the lab to advance sexual maturation, and to which humans are exposed,” she says.
Learning about the toxic chemicals in her beauty routine inspired Assaf to become an activist. For the past year, she has served as president of Teens for Safe Cosmetics (www.teensforsafecosmetics.org), a group of young people who are organizing nationally to push the beauty industry toward using safer ingredients. The teens have been educating peers, working with companies to improve products, and lobbying the government for policies that eliminate harmful chemicals.
For Assaf, the issue of early puberty comes down to noticing that her 10-year-old sister’s friends already are starting to develop. “We can’t just keep talking about this and keep searching for proof,” she says. “We need to make changes now.”
Stacy Malkan is the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and a cofounder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Excerpted from Natural Solutions(Oct. 2008), a magazine full of resources for vibrant health and balanced living; www.naturalsolutionsmag.com.