Cosmetics makers under fire on nail polish chemicals

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Do beautifully polished nails pose a safety risk for women and their offspring?

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
DBP has been removed from polishes sold in Europe.
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That's a quandary facing a growing number of cosmetics companies, salons and customers as health and environmental advocates step up their attack against a controversial ingredient contained in most nail polishes -- including some very popular brands.

The chemical dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, acts as a binder to improve the lasting power of nail lacquer. But it's also been linked to cancer in lab animals, and underdeveloped genitals and other long-term fertility problems in newborn boys.

And while many customers, nail technicians and salespersons aren't aware of the debate -- and are just as likely to have never heard of DBP -- at least one local salon in Aspinwall is vowing to remove products that carry the ingredient.

Environmental groups have mobilized to get DBP removed from all nail polishes sold in the United States.

Estee Lauder is among some major brands that have done that. But many others have not, including salon favorite OPI, cult fave Essie and ubiquitous bargain brand Sally Hansen. In 2004, OPI was forced to remove DBP from its polishes sold in Europe after the European Union banned it along with many other personal-care product ingredients known or strongly suspected to cause cancer, mutations or birth defects.

But the ban didn't necessarily mean that a substance had been proven to be harmful. The Phthalate Esters Panel of the American Chemistry Council and other proponents of phthalate use noted that risk assessments conducted by the European Union under the supervision of the European Chemicals Bureau expressed no health concerns about how DBP was used in cosmetics.

OPI has no plans to remove DBP from polishes sold in the United States, saying that the level is so low that it poses no health risk. Most exposure to the chemical comes from inhaling it rather than absorbing it through nail and cuticle contact.

Manufacturers of nail lacquers sold at retail in the United States are required to list ingredients on the packaging. Polishes formulated for salon use, however, are exempt. A visit last week to several Downtown Pittsburgh retail stores found polishes without ingredient listings on the packaging, as well as some polishes that listed contents in type so small that reading the labels even with a magnifying glass was difficult.

"There's lots of science showing reproductive toxicity," said Stacy Malkan, spokeswoman for The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics watchdog coalition, about DBP.

"We're concerned about workers who use the products all day long and especially about pregnant women and developing babies and kids, the most vulnerable. [Dibutyl] phthalates affect the male reproductive system, lowered sperm count, sperm damage, birth defects. The same defects found in animals have been rising in humans since the '70s," when the chemical was first developed and used in cosmetics.

"The size of the person and the timing of the exposure are as important as the amount of exposure," Ms. Malkan added.

Proponents of DBP use in cosmetics are correct that nail polishes that include the ingredient have not been conclusively proven to be toxic to humans. Nor, however, has it been proven that DBP in polishes does not cause harmful long-term effects.

And although nail polishes must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, laws do not require cosmetics companies to prove that products are safe before putting them on the market.

Thus, when it comes to dibutyl phthalates in nail polish, "it's not possible for the public to know the levels and whether they are low or high enough to be harmful," said Lauren Sucher, spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and watchdog organization in Washington, D.C. "We know the names of the ingredients, but we don't know the amounts of the ingredients in the recipe," she said. "So we don't know what amount is safe."

Often when products are tested before being put on the market, Ms. Sucher pointed out, they are checked only for immediate and acute reactions -- not long-term health problems such as cancer risk or reproductive toxicity.

Dibutyl phthalates were removed from Creative Nail Designs formulas last year as the controversy continued to heat up. Doug Schoon, vice president of science and technology at the company based in Vista, Calif., said the move was forced by a reactionary European Union.

"This is all just a political snafu that this poor ingredient has been caught in," said Mr. Schoon. "This has turned into a legal and regulatory fiasco that has nothing to do with ingredient safety."

He added that "most people don't know or care" about DBP.

Patricia Macartie, an owner of Eden, a Place of Beauty salon in Peters, took strong exception to that.

"Tell me why European women care more about themselves than American women," she demanded.

She said she had never heard of dibutyl phthalates and that her salon uses OPI and Essie. And although she recently gave birth to a son and "he's fine," she said, "I definitely want to hear more about [DBP] because I wouldn't want to use things on my clients that are going to cause cancer."

Mr. Schoon noted that DBP has been declared safe at current levels in cosmetics by dermatologists and toxicologists with the Phthalates Working Group and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which was established in 1976 by the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association with support of the FDA and the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group that works to advance pro-consumer policies.

"These activist people are out of control," he said. "We've got mothers and daughters and grandchildren, too. Why would we knowingly make products that cause cancer?"

Ms. Malkan with The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics responds: "Why did we fight about the science of cigarettes for 30 years when it was black and white? The bottom line is, the [cosmetics] industry can't show us that the chemical is safe while there's lots of information that it is dangerous. 'A little bit of carcinogen is OK.' That's what they're trying to tell us."

People come in contact with DBP and other phthalates in many forms, from children's plastic toys to vinyl shower curtains. A study published in September 2000 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the presence of dibutyl phthalates in every person tested -- and the highest levels in women ages 20 to 40. The CDC suggested that cosmetics might be a source.

Health and environmental groups began to search product labels and found that nail polish was the only product that listed phthalates as an ingredient. The Environmental Working Group published the findings in a November 2000 report titled "Beauty Secrets."

In 2002, along with Women's Voices for the Earth and Health Care Without Harm, EWG issued another report titled "Not Too Prettty" that included other products that contained phthalates. More than 70 percent of products tested at an independent lab contained at least one type of phthalate, from face creams, lotions and shampoos to hair sprays, deodorants and fragrances.

In January 2003, the European Union amended the Cosmetics Directive to ban the use of chemicals known or strongly suspected to cause cancer, mutation or birth defects. Since the amendment went into effect in September 2004, some companies have removed DBP from products sold in the United States.

In the wake of the reports, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has been trying to persuade nail polish manufacturers to remove dibutyl phthalates. The Campaign's "Compact for Safe Cosmetics" encourages cosmetics companies to sign a pledge "to not use chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects in their products and to implement substitution plans that replace hazardous materials with safer alternatives in every market they serve."

More than 300 companies -- including The Body Shop, Kiss My Face and California Baby -- had signed the covenant by May 15. The Campaign is pressuring industry giants Unilever, Avon, L'Oreal, Revlon, Estee Lauder and Procter & Gamble to sign on, too.

Without public pressure and federal intervention, it won't be easy. Mr. Schoon contended that when it comes to dibutyl phthalates in cosmetics, ordinary people "don't know and don't care."

Charlene Kleen, a nail technician at Barretta's in Upper St. Clair who has done nails for 20 years, said she's never heard of concerns over DBP and that none of her customers have mentioned it. The salon uses OPI and Zoya polishes.

Aspinwall's ESSpa Kozmetika plans to phase out the use of OPI products by the end of the year.

"We're making the transition," said owner Eva Sztupka-Kerschbaumer, despite resistance from clients who are passionate over their favorite brands. "It's hard. It really is."

Clients love OPI's pretty colors and clever names. They also like the fact that OPI lacquer is more resilient than the other brands she uses: Haken organic enamels and Duri and Zoya, both of which contain no dibutyl phthalates, formaldehyde resin or toluene.

One of Mrs. Sztupka-Kerschbaumer's frustrations is that OPI "is so good at marketing" that customers come in requesting it. But she insisted that the brand's days are numbered at her chic Aspinwall spa.

Felicia Eaves, a national campaign organizer for the Montana-based advocacy group Women's Voices for the Earth, took issue with Mr. Schoon's statement that people don't care about DBP.

"Women would trade longevity with their nail polish for the health of themselves and their unborn babies," she said. "And really, this is an issue of right to know. Women just don't know the kind of chemicals that are in these products, and they don't know that the U.S. government doesn't protect them against these chemicals."

Post-Gazette fashion editor LaMont Jones can be reached at or at 412-263-1469.


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