Slather them on your face, rub them into your pores, take a bath in them -- they are the chemicals and minerals and nanoparticles that make up the makeup we use to try to look our best, protect ourselves from the sun and even turn back the aging process.
Yet there is precious little oversight about what goes into these products, be they cosmetics, sunscreen or bath and shower items. Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor U.S. Department of Agriculture really regulates them -- unless someone calls a problem to their attention.
That leaves even the savviest consumer to plow through the marketing hype.
"My clients are looking at what they're putting on their faces and in their bodies, and they're asking questions," said Michele Papenheim, a longtime makeup artist who has a studio in Birmingham's Cole Street Salon.
Here in the world of Rosy Raisin and Mystique Mauve, Papenheim is changing her product line to include only those items with fewer, more recognizable ingredients. "They will say, 'Do you have something without this or that ingredient?' You almost have to be a chemist to sort it out," Papenheim said.
Now, U.S. Rep John Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, has begun congressional hearings -- the first in decades -- into cosmetics safety. At least three pieces of legislation would give the FDA more enforcement power over cosmetics. Though they might not force makeup to pass safety tests before it hits store shelves, a new law could require manufacturers to register their products with the FDA and give the agency recall authority if problems arise.
Take the case of Brazilian Blowout, hair-straightening products that were found in 2010 to have dangerous levels of Methylene glycol, a liquid form of the preservative formaldehyde. Users reported breathing problems and skin rashes. At the time, the FDA sent a letter telling the manufacturer it had violated labeling laws.
The product now contains a warning on its labels, "but it's still on the shelves," said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" (New Society, $15.95). "It's not illegal to sell the product, and the FDA can't do anything about it."
The cosmetics industry has backed better regulation, reasoning that single federal oversight is better than each state passing its own safety regulations. The research is still out on whether low levels of exposure to chemicals in cosmetics could really be harmful to humans.
Still, folks like Susan Griffin-Black, formulator and cofounder of California-based EO Products, believe that the effects of using all those products builds over time.
In the cosmetics industry, "everyone's intentions are safe levels. But then, everyone is using 20 products a day. It's this geometric explosion of chemicals in our lives. ... It's not one thing," she said.
EO advertises its products as natural, made from organic ingredients and free of animal testing.
Is it dangerous?
There is plenty of disagreement over what is dangerous and at what levels.
"The question is whether the occasional application on the skin is really dangerous," said Dr. Scott Ramsey, director of the Cancer Prevention Program at the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Ramsey spends hours poring over the latest research on cancer risks. As a physician, health economist and researcher, Ramsey distills the sound science into cancer causes from urban legends, suspicion and web-fueled hysteria.
For example, consumers are often surprised to find that no scientifically sound, comprehensive study has conclusively found that cell phones cause cancer. Nor do power lines, diet soft drinks, copper pennies or fluorescent lights, for that matter. Even if earlier studies suggested possible, indirect links, they were either too limited to be conclusive or have since been contradicted, Ramsey said.
Research that detected parabens -- a preservative used in cosmetics and deodorant -- in breast tumors several years ago had many clearing out their medicine cabinets and makeup trays. What's still unclear is whether the paraben actually caused the tumors.
It's good business for large cosmetics companies to operate extensive in-house labs to test products for safety, Ramsey said.
In fact, preservatives prevent the growth of harmful bacteria on the product as it sits on bathroom counters or gets knocked around in the bottom of a purse. Consumers should be more concerned with smaller companies, whose product ingredients or manufacturing practices are unknown. Even then, those problems are more likely going to be linked to skin irritants or pathogenic bacteria -- such as salmonella or staphyloccus -- than to cancer, Ramsey said.
Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the text-decoration: underline; border-bottom: 0.075em solid darkgreen; padding-bottom: 1px; background-color: transparent;">University of Michigan School of Public Health, agreed. "The industry seems to be reasonably well self-regulating."
In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen -- the nearly molecule-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores -- are dangerous. His conclusion: They're not.
"It was really surprising, to be honest," he said.
Toxins are everywhere
In her book, Malkan notes it's impossible to avoid all toxins. They have seeped into the world in which we live -- kitchen cabinets, laundry detergents and carpet.
Malkan and Griffin-Black reason: Why not at least cut down on the exposure you can control in things such as cosmetics?
At Birmingham's Cole Street Salon, Papenheim relies on three lines, including her newest -- Mineral Hygienics, which uses just four ingredients in most of its products and avoids bismuth oxychloride, a possible irritant, and other synthetic chemicals, metals, dyes, fragrances, irritants and fillers.
Andrea McNinch, a regular customer who advocates for healthier nutrition and cleaner, greener living, was thrilled: "This is wonderful," she said, reading the label on a new moisturizer.
She swiveled to tell another customer: "Better health is not a science problem; it's an information problem."
Papenheim agreed, but noted that it's easy to get overwhelmed.
"You have to live life and not go crazy over everything," she said. "But if I can give people a bit of faith in the safety of what they're putting on their face, I'm happy about that."