Safe Cosmetics = Healthy Cigarettes?

by Hannah Klein Connolly

Cosmetic BottlesSafe cosmetics is somewhat of an oxymoron, like healthy or “lite” cigarettes, and as unlikely as it may seem, the cosmetics industry bears a number of similarities to the cigarette industry. Both are rich industries with highly guarded trade secrets and profi ts that exceed $50 billion, both have strong ties inside the Washington Beltway, and both are reluctant to reveal what is actually in their products. However, the danger to our health posed by most cosmetics is perhaps the most alarming similarity between tobacco and cosmetics. The lack of transparency regarding the products contained in most cosmetics leaves consumers misinformed, uninformed, and very much at risk.

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“Today’s cosmetic industry is similar to the tobacco industry before 1965.”

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Today’s cosmetics industry is similar to the tobacco industry before 1965, when Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act and required that all cigarette packets carry a “damaging to your health” warning label. Synthetic chemicals and metals are in most of the products in our medicine cabinet, shower stall, and purse. There are close to 168 chemicals found in the 12 personal care products that women use each day.1

“…the list of ingredients in tiny print on cosmetics’ packaging is merely what is ‘intended’ to go into the product, not actually what goes to market.”

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What Are We Using on Our Body?

Most women don’t know that the list of ingredients in tiny print on cosmetics packaging is merely what is “intended”2 to go into the product, not actually what goes to market. For example, the word “fragrance”3 in cosmetic industry vernacular translates to “trade secret” and could be comprised of virtually any chemical. In fact, “fragrance” is where you’ll often find“phthalates” hiding.4

As if the language switch and bait were not bad enough, the U.S. government’s product watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration, has no jurisdiction over the cosmetic industry. According to Jacqueline Houton ofBitch magazine, “the agency isn’t authorized to approve cosmetic products or ingredients before they hit the shelves. Manufacturers are under no legal obligation to register with the FDA, file data on ingredient safety, or report injuries caused by their products.”5 The FDA neither reviews nor regulates what goes into cosmetics. This makes personal care the least regulated consumer category despite being the fifth-largest such category. The U.S. government has banned or restricted 10 chemicals from cosmetics. The European Union prohibits over 1,100 ingredients.6 In fact, all 15 countries of the European Union are subject to the Cosmetic Directive, which bans not only animal testing but also the use of any chemical known to be or suspected of being harmful.

“In 30 years, the personal care industry’s own safety panel has tested only 11 percent of the products on the market for safety and banned only nine ingredients as toxic.”

The FDA’s own web site explains its limitations: “FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency…Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.”7 This means that safety testing is done only by the manufacturer. Of course, few manufacturers do it. In 30 years, the personal care industry’s own safety panel has tested only 11 percent of the products on the market for safety and banned only nine ingredients as toxic.

“When a skin care product is used, it can be absorbed and stored within the body…The question then becomes, how much absorption is too much.”

When a skin care product is used, it can be absorbed and stored within the body. Depending on the size of the molecule, it takes a mere 29 seconds for 0–100 percent of a product to be absorbed after being applied topically. This constant absorption, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, is referred to by chemists as the “chemical body burden.”9The question then becomes, how much absorption is too much?

In 2005, tests were conducted on newborn babies whose umbilical cord blood contained toxins that ranged from PCN- 66 (found in dye production) to gamma PHC (insecticides in agriculture) to Anthracene (used to make preservatives). These toxins were found in their mother’s body regardless of whether the mother had ever visited a farm or been around pesticides or a chemical/manufacturing plant.10 Just as frightening were the results of the 2005 report conducted by the Oakland Tribune that discovered a five-year-old who had 90 percent more dibutyl phthalate than typical for children her age. This product is found in nail polish, which the child had been playing with for many months.11

It is unclear how each of these and other toxins are ingested by food, drink, or topical application. Some chemicals, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS or SLES), can be created as a result of chemical reactions when ingredients are combined into one product, such as shampoo. In the cosmetic industry, this is called an “unintended by-product.” Other harmful chemicals may be listed simply as ingredients, such as talc (powders), mineral oil (makeup remover, lipsticks, and lotions), formaldehyde (nail polish, shampoo, soaps, skin creams), fluorocarbons, DEA, SEA, titanium dioxide, and propylene glycol (suntan lotions, lipsticks, etc.).12 According to a report issued in 2006 by the California Policy Research Center, in each state, enough cosmetic chemical compounds are sold each day to fill two tanker trucks.13

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Connecting All the Dots

If a woman applies a lipstick such as L’Oreal True Red, which contains .65 ppm14 of lead, five times a day, three days a week for seven years, her body may absorb a significant amount of lead. Lead can suppress her immune system and damage cells. Most of us do not know the lethal dose of lead or the effects of ingesting or inhaling it over a long period of time.

“If you make a product that contains a chemical that has been connected to breast disease, breast cancer ‘philanthropy’ gives you the chance to cover your tracks.”

The cosmetics industry is a lucrative industry. And when paired with Breast Cancer Awareness, sales can rocket. If you make a product that contains a chemical that has been connected to breast disease, breast cancer “philanthrophy” gives you the chance to cover your tracks. In 2007, L’Oreal raised $225,000 for the Komen Foundation to be used for breast cancer research. The company Zeneca/ICI manufactures the best-selling breast cancer drug Arimidex and is the largest official sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Zeneca/ICI also manufactures toxic vinyl chloride, which can be found in hair sprays and is also linked to breast cancer.15 All too frequently, large companies that Breast Cancer Action calls “pinkwashers” wrap themselves in the pink ribbon crusade and “support” research for a breast cancer cure while making products that contribute to this disease. The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly is more blatant still. It manufactures both the controversial artificial milk production stimulant recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH), which has been linked to breast cancer,16 and Gemzar, a drug used to treat metastatic breast cancer.

There has been some progress in the fight to require the cosmetics industry to disclose the harmful chemicals that may be in their products. As of June 15, 2009, this changed in California when the California Safe Cosmetic Act of 2005 went into effect despite $600,000 spent to kill the bill by cosmetic industry lobbyists. The Safe Cosmetic Act requires a manufacturer, packer, and/ or distributor of cosmetics to produce a list of all cosmetic products sold in California that contain any ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Consumers can find this information in the coming months on the California Public Health database.17 If companies comply, consumers will be able to make more educated decisions when purchasing cosmetics in California.

“All too frequently, large companies that BCA calls ‘pinkwashers’ wrap themselves in the pink ribbon crusade while making products that contribute to this disease and ‘support’ research for a breast cancer cure while making products that contribute to the disease.”

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What Can You Do?

There are practical measures at your disposal:

  • Take a look, for instance, at the safe cosmetics database, or in a few months at the California Public Health database.18
  • Clean out your purse, your showers, and medicine cabinets. Toss the cosmetics found to be harmful in the Skin Deep database, and find nontoxic alternatives online at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com.
  • Opt for European products when you can find and/or afford them. Finally, be aware of marketing tools such as product labels that declare something to be “organic” and “natural.” There are apparently no legal standards for such marketing verbiage.19
  • Help to change laws that protect you and your family from harmful chemicals. Each one of us can be an activist and let our government, large manufacturing companies, and local stores know that accountability is needed. Unsafe ingredients should be banned. Most global companies have formulations sold in Europe that exclude known or suspected toxins, so there is no cost to reformulate. It can be done.
  • Think Before You Pink,® and stop the profit cycle. It starts and ends with you.

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1 Stacy Malkan, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, Gabriola, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers, p.2.

2 Abby Ellin, “Skin Deep a Simple Smooch or a Toxic Smack?” New York Times, May 28, 2009. Online at www.nytimes.com/2009/05/28/fashion/28skin.html

3 Online at www.nottoopretty.org/article.php?id=222

4 In Europe, two phthalates, DEHP and DBP, have already been banned. Additionally, the European Union has banned 1,132 known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins from use in cosmetics, but only 10 such chemicals are banned in the United States, leaving us with mercury in mascara, petrochemicals in perfumes, and parabens in antiperspirants.

Bitch magazine, Jacqueline Houton, December 16, 2008. Online atwww.ewg.org/node/27462

6 Online at www.colipa.eu/

7 Online atwww.fda.gov/Cosmetics/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/ucm074162.htm

8 Online at www.cir-safety.org/staff_files/unsafe.pdf

9 Online at www.chemicalbodyburden.org/whatisbb.htm

10 The Body Burden report. Online atwww.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2/contentindex.php

11 Online at www.insidebayarea.com/search/ci_3299744?IADID=Search-www.insidebayarea.com-www.insidebayarea.com

12 Online at www.hallgold.com/toxic-chemical-ingredients-directory.htm

13 Online at www.noharm.org/us/chemicalpolicy/issue

14 Abby Ellin, “Skin Deep: A Simple Smooch or a Toxic Smack?” New York Times, May 28, 2009. Online at www.nytimes.com/2009/05/28/fashion/28skin.html

15 Online at www.preventcancer.com/avoidable/breast_cancer/env_causes.htm.

16 Online at www.preventcancer.com/consumers/general/milk.htm

17 Online at www.safecosmeticsact.org/SafeCosmetics/

18 Online at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/splash.php?URI=%2Findex.php

19 Natasha Singer, “Skin Deep: Natural, Organic Beauty,” New York Times, November 1, 2007.

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