April 15, 2005
The Ugly Side of Pretty
by Rebecca Ephraim
"I don't pay much attention to the ingredient lists,
I just know what works for me," said Shelley Carpenter, when asked
what she looks for in her personal care products.
Thinking a little harder, she adds, "I'm allergic to
most perfumes, so I stay away from smelly stuff. But I couldn't pin it
This begs the question, "Who can?" After all, how
many of us have the time or inclination to scour the ingredient lists
of our moisturizer, deodorant, body lotion and any of the other products
we slather on daily?
Carpenter, 45, bases her choices of personal body care products
primarily on how her skin immediately reacts to them, and second to that,
their functionality. Her skin, beautifully clear and alabaster, erupts
into a red, scaly rash at the slightest provocation and she's aware from
years of trial and error that certain products set this in motion.
But beyond skin eruptions and rashes, emerging science suggests
that untold numbers of cosmetics and personal care ingredients may be
silently and insidiously promoting cancer, ravaging women's reproductive
functions and causing birth defects. Known by hundreds of long, intimidating
chemical names, these ingredients are in the products we shower and bathe
with, rub, spray and dab on our bodies, unconsciously, day-in-and-day-out.
It's the day-in-and-day-out part that's of most concern,
since these toxic ingredients leak their poisons through our porous skin
and into our bodies bit-by-bit.
There's not one smoking gun that we can point to and
say It's that personal care product, that deodorant, that nail polish
that is going to give you cancer, said Jeanne Rizzo, the executive
director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund. "We can say
the cumulative exposure the aggregate exposure that we all have
to a myriad of personal care products containing carcinogens, mutagens
and reproductive toxins has not been assessed."
Categorically, the giant, mainstream personal care products
companies continue to use known or suspected toxic ingredients in their
product formulas. There are literally thousands of substances that have
been used for decades without the slightest hint to consumers that they
may be doing something more than making us squeaky clean and smell good.
As activist Charlotte Brody points out, "Neither cosmetic
products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by the Food
and Drug Administration before they are sold to the public. And the FDA
cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products
Hence, chemicals such as acrylamide (in foundation, face
lotion and hand cream) linked to mammary tumors in lab research; formaldehyde
(found in nail polish and blush) classified as a probable human carcinogen
by the Environmental Protection Agency; and dibutyl phthalate (an industrial
chemical commonly found in perfume and hair spray) known to damage the
liver, kidney and reproductive systems, disrupt hormonal processes and
increase breast cancer risk are widely used in beauty products.
So should Shelley Carpenter be aware of this? She's certainly
no slouch. She's a clinical hospital pharmacist advising doctors on the
complex nuances of drug therapies; she's also working on her doctorate
in pharmacy while being a mom and wife. Point is, like most of us, she's
over-extended and assumes like most of us, that whatever personal
care products we casually grab off the store shelf must be OK or, well,
they wouldn't be sold. In other words, we think, "There's somebody
watching out for us, probably some government agency."
"The public, bless our little democratic good government
hearts, believes that there is some federal agency that makes sure that
dangerous chemicals aren't put into the products we put all over ourselves.
Sadly, it's just not true," quips Brody, who's executive director
of Commonweal. It, along with Rizzo's Breast Cancer Fund and dozens of
other social profit groups, are waging the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
They're banging the drum to rouse consumers from our slumber of ignorance
to realize the dangers lurking in personal care products and the failure
or refusal of any power to change it.
The innocents and the knowing
If you believe that buying "natural" cosmetics
and personal care products (those brands usually found in natural health
stores and the like) guarantees toxin-free ingredients, you are wrong.
The reasons for this are dicey with dollops of gray shading.
It comes down to a spectrum that runs from 1) companies that know better
but willfully use toxic ingredients to 2) well-intending natural products
companies that heretofore operated out of ignorance.
But to understand this, we need to go to Europe for some
perspective. The European Union (EU), with its 25 member countries, is
taking a more enlightened (or a less Draconian) approach to protecting
its 450 million people from toxins in personal care products. As of this
March, an EU "Cosmetics Directive," will require companies doing
business in Europe to eliminate chemicals in personal care products known
or strongly suspected of causing "harm to human health." Although
there are thousands of questionable chemicals, the directive is targeting
about 450, which is huge compared to the nine chemicals that the FDA has
banned or restricted in personal care products.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has seized upon the EU's
Cosmetic Directive and is urging consumers to sign a petition that asks
U.S. companies to commit to meeting the same standards as their European
counterparts and then beyond. So far, some 50 companies have signed the
campaign's compact all of them are natural products companies.
Not one single, large, mainstream company has stepped forward, according
to Janet Nudelman, coordinator of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
"We've had dozens of conversations with these companies
and they are absolutely unwilling to admit there's a single chemical that
represents harm or could be harmful to consumers in their products,"
Problem is, they don't have to. Major loopholes in federal
law allow the $35 billion cosmetics industry to, basically, police itself,
allowing unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with
no required testing, no monitoring of health effects and inadequate labeling
"The U.S. government, in relation to the FDA, has not
been on the side of consumers and has not been on the side of public health,"
Nudelman said. "We certainly see that when we see industry representatives
serving on government panels that are looking to the very issue that they
are supposed to be regulating and that is consumer safety. Is the
fox guarding the hen house? Yeah, absolutely in the U.S. without question."
However, consumers increasingly have a safe option in those
"natural products" companies that have signed the Safe Cosmetics
compact pledging to eliminate any questionable chemicals in the personal
care products they sell.
"The natural products companies may not be all pure
and 100 percent where it is we want them to be, but the important thing
is that they want to be there, and they're committed to getting there,"
Nudelman said. "We're talking about literally a massive reformulation
on the part of many of these companies in order to meet the core components
(of the compact)."
California-based Avalon Natural Products, with three different
brands, including Avalon Organics, is one of those companies, reformulating
more than 100 skin care products to eliminate questionable ingredients.
For a casual observer, it's difficult to fathom why a "natural product"
would even have this problem since chemicals like parabens aren't "natural"
in the first place yet are pervasive in natural products.
Avalon brand manager Tim Schaeffer acknowledged the paradox,
which stems from the complexity of preserving natural ingredients in packaged
form. Parabens are used as preservatives to inhibit bacteria, yeast and
"It's a big challenge to keep natural products from
literally rotting. You buy them off a shelf in a store, where they were
probably sitting for a month and before that in a warehouse for another
month. Then you bring them home and put them in a warm, moist environment
where they'll sit for six months or longer ... some things like a deodorant
or cream you're putting your fingers in or rubbing in your armpit on a
daily basis. That's a pretty tough environment to resist rotting. So preservation
for products such as ours that have a lot of organic oils and herbs, is
Additionally, parabens (and thousands of other questionable
ingredients), have always been legal to use in the U.S. and Canada, and
only until recently, when studies have drawn correlations between their
use and breast cancer, has concern been raised. Up to this time, many
possibly most makers of natural personal care products were
not aware of the hazards of these ingredients. Signers of the compact
have scrambled to find effective natural alternatives.
Checking for toxins in your products
In a massive undertaking, the Environmental Working Group
(EWG) analyzed the health and safety reviews of 10,000 ingredients in
personal care products. The EWG discovered that there is scant research
available to document the safety or health risks of low-dose repeated
exposures to chemical mixtures. But the absence of data should never be
mistaken for proof of safety. The EWG points out that the more we study
low-dose exposures, the more we understand that they can cause adverse
effects ranging from the subtle and reversible, to effects that are more
serious and permanent.
Based on that, the EWG has developed Skin Deep,
a sophisticated online rating system that ranks brand-name products on
their potential health risks and the absence of basic safety evaluations.
To try out its usefulness, we ran a list of the personal care products
that Shelley Carpenter uses.
Six of the approximately 10 products she applies daily were
recognized and scored. Among those was one product that may pose cancer
risks and three products with ingredients that may contain impurities
linked to breast cancer; another two, called "penetration enhancers,"
increase exposure to other products that are carcinogenic, six of the
products contain ingredients that are unstudied or lack sufficient safety
data and, despite Carpenter's efforts to avoid them, one product contains
ingredients that are allergens. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being
of the highest health concern, Carpenter's score was a 6.7.
Janet Nudelman, of the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, says she
uses Skin Deep regularly to look up ingredients in personal care products
to get a safety reading and make a purchase decision based on the
"Consumers have real power they are not exercising,"
she said. "We need to let cosmetic companies know we're going to
not buy their products unless they make a strong unwavering commitment
Sign the consumer petition to encourage companies to join
the compact for Safe Cosmetics at www.safecosmetics.org.
Purchase from companies that have committed to safe products. See the list at www.safecosmetics.org/companies/signers.cfm
Dragonfly Media health editor Rebecca Ephraim has become an avid label reader of personal care products and devotee of Skin Deep. Dragon Media is at www.dragonflymedia.com.
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