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How Safe Are Your Cosmetics?

by Rachel PomeranceUS News
July 31st, 2012

Most of us probably don't give much thought to our morning rituals, to the extent that we're even awake during them. But the parade of personal care products Americans use each day—from toothpaste and shampoo to lipstick and aftershave—can affect us more than we realize. At issue are the chemical ingredients they contain and the extent to which they pose any risk to consumers. Just as Americans have developed an appetite for pesticide-free foods and all things organic, so too have they turned their attention to the make up of makeup.

Mounting research on the subject has raised questions and stoked concern about the potential toxicity of certain chemicals and has led to calls for increased regulation of the beauty business. Fragrance, in particular, has become a source of concern due to the unlisted ingredients behind the scents. A study of 17 popular fragrances by the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, advocacy groups focused on exposing products they deem hazardous to health, found 14 undisclosed chemicals, on average. Among them were phthalates, which are used to soften plastic and have been linked to various ailments.

Last week, in fact, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance were lobbying members of Congress to pass the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, which, among other things, would require product labels to list all ingredients and authorize the Food and Drug Administration to recall products and discontinue ingredients that may cause "serious adverse health effects." The groups are also pressing the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors to recall hair-straightening treatments that contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen that they say jeopardizes the health of salon workers.

[See What Causes Cancer? 7 Strange Cancer Claims Explained.]

The current lobbying activity comes on the heels of new research linking phthalates to type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity. Found in everything from toys to perfume, phthalates belong to a class of chemicals called "endocrine disruptors," because they interfere with the body's hormone systems. Other chemicals in this category are Bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in plastic and canned foods, and was recently banned in baby bottles by the FDA, and parabens, commonly used to preserve personal care products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed adding eight types of phthalates and BPA to its list of chemicals that "may present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment" and has requested further study of these chemicals from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Like BPA, phthalates aren't always listed in a product's ingredients. In fact, phthalates are often grouped under the catch-all ingredient, "fragrance," rather than separately identified on cosmetic labeling.

A study presented at the Endocrine Society's annual meeting in Houston this summer showed a correlation between phthalates and childhood obesity. That study along with "hundreds of others in the last few years," according to the group, caused it to issue a forceful statement, calling for further federal regulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which research suggests may interfere with healthy human development. Congress banned several phthalates in children's toys in 2008.

[See Phthalates Threat: Less Boy, More Girl.]

Also this month, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that women with the highest levels of certain phthalates in their urine were twice as likely to have diabetes as women whose urine contained the lowest levels. "More research is needed," says lead author Tamarra James-Todd, who notes in a news release that phthalates exist in personal care products as well as in diabetes treatments, which could explain the correlation.

When it comes to phthalates, as well as parabens and BPA, "we have very suggestive but not definitive data," says Michael Roizen, internist, anesthesiologist, and chair of the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute. "If it was definitive, the FDA would have done something about it already," he says, recommending that the agency take the "first step" by pressing for better labeling of cosmetic ingredients. Roizen, along with Dr. Oz, with whom he has created the YOU series of health guides, last year launched YouBeauty.com to provide a science-based beauty resource. Its online store, BeautySage, notes the ingredients in (and excluded from) products recommended by chemists and consumers. For his part, Roizen tries to avoid products with phthalates. "I think they're putting us at risk for abnormal gene function, which means there probably is a risk of cancer and, in this case, diabetes, and maybe abnormal sexual function as well."

But Roizen couches the concern in relative terms. "This is not probably as high a risk as sitting on your bottom all day and not doing physical activity."

FDA representative Tamara Ward says the agency is "reviewing the recent work that has reported links between phthalate exposure and type 2 diabetes and obesity, in light of the large body of existing scientific information on phthalates, including FDA's own work, to see if it is relevant to cosmetic uses of phthalates and, if so, whether it would change our current perspective." The FDA states, on its website, that it "does not have compelling evidence that phthalates, used in cosmetics, pose a safety risk."

Determining ingredient risk depends on usage and degree, says Halyna Breslawec, chief scientist of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent scientific panel funded by the Personal Care Products Council, the cosmetic industry's trade association. Voting members include estimable academic doctors and professors, with Linda Katz, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, serving as a liaison member.

"Everything can be safe. Everything can be unsafe. It depends on the conditions of use," Breslawec says. "That's what makes it so complicated." But making safe products only makes sense, she says. "The cosmetic industry would not have a market if its products weren't safe...It's not like we're manufacturing products that we're not using ourselves."

[See Beware Free Trials of Anti-Aging Products Sold on the Web.]

Certain ingredients have been deemed flat-out toxic. Mercury, for example, which has been found in imported products that claim to lighten skin or reverse aging, has been banned by the FDA. "It can damage the kidneys and the nervous system, and interfere with the development of the brain in unborn children and very young children," according to the FDA website.