The ugly side of beauty, some cosmetics can be toxic
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It didn't get much attention nationally, just a few paragraphs in papers such as the Kennebec Journal and a segment on the local news.
But the quiet protest by a group of high school and college students in Waterville, Maine, in February was one of a growing number across the country. They gathered at the post office to mail 12 beauty products to an environmental lab, where they would be tested for toxins and other dangerous ingredients that many commonly used products contain.
"As young people, we're coming together to put our cosmetics on trial," said Anne Sheldon, a member of the Maine Women's Lobby, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping women through public policy.
"The European Union has banned more than 1,000 ingredients from cosmetics, while the United States has banned only 10."
The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1936 has only two pages that relate to cosmetics, and it has not been updated despite a sea change in the industry. The fact is, the Food and Drug Administration has no authority to make cosmetics companies test products for safety or recall products that are found to be harmful.
Although the average woman uses a dozen personal care products each day that contain a total of 168 chemicals and the average man uses six products containing 85 chemicals, there is no federal regulation of these ingredients.
Americans are living longer than ever, but a third of them develop chronic disease and disability, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A major reason, claim advocates of tougher regulation of the cosmetics industry, is the cumulative effect of toxic chemicals that are absorbed through the skin (as opposed to breathing, drinking and eating).
Many are known carcinogens responsible for childhood and hormone-related cancers, while others have been linked to asthma, birth defects, early puberty, learning disabilities, nervous system disorders and infertility.
Much like the tobacco industry, which denied for years the mounting body of evidence that smoking caused cancer and emphysema, the global $300 billion cosmetics industry argues that toxic ingredients are absorbed in such small amounts they have no dangerous effect. Yet added to the host of other toxins to which we are exposed and multiplied by repeated use of those products we use daily, even trace amounts can add up fast, experts say.
"There's certainly a lot of denial and false information the industry puts forth," says Stacy Malkan, a former teen beauty queen and author of the landmark book "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry."
"In some cases, people didn't know this stuff 20 or 30 years ago. Now we know even low doses of toxic chemicals can be harmful, but there's resistance to change," she says. "It's easier to create doubt, and that's exactly where they're taking a page out of the tobacco industry playbook. We're seeing exactly the same thing -- it's just a little bit of carcinogen in the baby shampoo, just one hormone-disrupting chemical in your fragrance."
Ms. Malkan is a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health, labor, environmental and consumer rights groups that has worked since 2002 to eliminate hazardous chemicals from personal care products.
Among the founding members are the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, Breast Cancer Fund, Clean Water Fund and the Environmental Working Group, which publishes Skin Deep, an online cosmetics safety database.
The database ranks beauty products according to safety, from 1 to 10. However, cosmetic companies are not required to list all the ingredients on their product labels -- and so the database is limited to the information the cosmetic company releases. Fragrances, for example, are exempt because their formulas are considered a proprietary "secret."
Sometimes the lack of disclosure is more complex.
"Contaminants or byproducts, such as formaldehyde in baby shampoo, are not listed because they are released by other chemicals or created when you combine chemicals," Ms. Malkan says.
Because the FDA doesn't test cosmetics for safety, that job goes to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which is funded and run by the cosmetics industry through its trade association, the Personal Care Products Council. Safety advocates are concerned that, in effect, the industry is policing itself. But Alan Andersen, director of the CIR, disagrees.
"The scientific decision-making is made by a panel of experts," Mr. Andersen says. "The industry plays no role in those decisions."
He adds that he has "no opinion" on whether the FDA should become involved in testing beauty products or the push by some for legislation that would lead to greater disclosure.
"We are a scientific review group looking at the available safety data. That's the job we do."
So why are the findings of the CIR criticized by those who say the same research points to dangers the CIR fails to cite? Take, for instance, a recent CBS "60 Minutes" segment on dibutyl phthalates (found in PVC, fragrance, lotions and nail polish), which reported research linking them to endocrine disruption and birth defects, including genital deformities in male infants, and said most people have traces of phthalates in their bodies.
"Endocrine disruption doesn't mean much of anything," says Mr. Andersen. "We looked at the actual studies looking at specific end points. Most of these studies were done on rodents and at the lowest exposure that produces an effect. There were changes in sperm production in those studies, and there were exposures so low it had no effect. The exposure from cosmetics is 5,000 times below that level. Phthalates do not accumulate in the body. They go in an out of the body."
Several health and environmental experts have also assailed the use of parabens in cosmetics because they can be absorbed in the skin and have properties that can disrupt the body's endocrine functions. Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics, and typically more than one type of paraben is used. According to the FDA website, they're often combined with other preservatives to protect against microorganisms.
But it's the CIR that has done all safety tests on the chemical. In 1984 and 2005, it conducted reviews of parabens used in cosmetic products and came to the same conclusions: The levels of parabens used posed no safety risk. The FDA participates in the CIR in a non-voting capacity.
The last review was prompted by a study published in the Journal of Applied Technology in 2004 that, according to the FDA website, "detected parabens in breast tumors." The study also discussed this information in the context of the weak estrogen-like properties of parabens and the influence of estrogen on breast cancer.
"However, the study left several questions unanswered," the FDA website said. "For example, the study did not show that parabens cause cancer, or that they are harmful in any way, and the study did not look at possible paraben levels in normal tissue."
Skin Deep found that 89 percent of the ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products have never been tested for safety by the CIR, which has cited 10 ingredients as objectionable since its founding in 1976. The EU, which adheres to much stricter standards in cosmetics than the United States, has banned 1,300 ingredients that have been known or strongly suspected of causing cancer.
As more information becomes available and the grassroots movement grows, pressure is mounting on the FDA to regulate cosmetics the way it does food and drugs. According to the FDA, "A change in FDA's statutory authority over cosmetics would require Congress to change the law." The cosmetics industry counters that such legislation is unnecessary because the CIR is doing a fine job.
But not everyone is waiting for Congress to act. In 2005, California became the first state to pass a law that governs the safety and reporting of cosmetic ingredients. The California Safe Cosmetics Act requires manufacturers to disclose to the state any ingredients on the state or federal list of chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects. In 2008, Washington state banned dibutyl phthalates from personal care products used by children as part of its Children's Safe Products Act.
The push also is on for full disclosure of ingredients, a task made daunting by the fact that some chemicals can have as many as a dozen names.
There are also loopholes. A 2002 report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that almost three-fourths of the products it tested contained phthalates (which adds flexibility and moisturizing sheen), although none of the 72 items listed it on the label. That's because phthalates are commonly found in exempt fragrances, which are in most soaps, lotions, hair products and a host of other items.
A 2008 follow-up to the study found that phthalate levels had dropped in some products, an unofficial response to increased concern. Yet without full disclosure of ingredients, there is no way for consumers to know which products don't have phthalates, leading some to eschew products that contain fragrance altogether.
More and more people are turning to organic cosmetic companies that avoid the use of harmful chemicals.
"Sales of natural and organic care products are growing faster than sales of conventional products," Ms. Malkan says. "The cosmetics companies are certainly paying attention to that."
While Ms. Malkan cautions that terms such as natural, pure and organic have no legal standing, the health risks posed by cosmetics has led to greater scrutiny and the birth of many new "natural" companies.
To date, more than 1,000 manufacturers have signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' "Compact for Safe Cosmetics," a pledge that its products meet EU standards and that hazardous ingredients will be replaced with safe ones within three years.
"But that number doesn't include the mainstream brands people know," Ms. Malkan says. "The big companies have not agreed to work together with us. They have made some small steps, like removing [dibutyl phthalate] from nail polish."
They have also started to infiltrate the natural cosmetics market -- if you can't beat them, buy them. Aveda is owned by Estee Lauder, L'Oreal bought The Body Shop, Colgate-Palmolive owns Tom's of Maine, and Clorox paid $925 million for Burt's Bees in 2007.
"In some cases, the products are still pretty good, but personally I buy from smaller companies that are wholly committed to making safe products," Ms. Malkan says. "Estee Lauder knows how to make products without these toxic chemicals, but they need to do it to all of their lines. In the long run, people don't want to buy the toxic stuff. The smart company is the one that breaks away."
First Published July 20, 2010 12:00 am