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New law puts focus on cosmetics ingredients

by Elizabeth JardinaOakland Tribune
October 17th, 2005

The shampoo and makeup aisles at your favorite drug store may not reflect it, but there's controversy brewing among the neat cardboard boxes of hair dye and bottles of lotion.

Environmental groups are asking: What exactly is this stuff? What effect does it have on my body? Who's saying it's safe to put it on my scalp, my fingernails, my lips?

At the same time, cosmetics companies are reiterating even louder that their products are safe and that millions of people use them daily without ill-health consequences.

The state government is even getting involved, with the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that will require any company that sells a personal-care product that contains any ingredient that's a human carcinogen or reproductive toxin to disclose that to the Department of Health Services starting in 2007.

At this point, you may be saying: Carcinogen? In my personal care products? What the ... ? And you might conclude that requiring companies to announce that there are possible carcinogens in your hair dye and nail polish seems sensible.

The argument with some personal-care products (like dandruff shampoo, which can contain coal tar) is that the potential benefit (clearing up flaky scalp) outweighs the potential risk posed by the small amount of the carcinogen in the product.

Another argument is that an ingredient such as silica may be a known carcinogen when you breathe it in—but if it's embedded in toothpaste, there's no evidence that it will cause lung cancer.

And, just because a cosmetic or bath product contains (in some amount) a possible or probable human carcinogen, that doesn't mean the product itself is a carcinogen. That's important. (Don't throw away your hair dye quite yet.)

But advocates of the bill—which was sponsored by state Sen. Carol Migden, D-San Francisco,—hope that having to disclose carcinogenic ingredients will motivate companies to reformulate their products, presumably making them safer.

"From a PR point of a view, it's very likely that a company isn't going to want to report to public information that their products contain carcinogens and chemicals that cause birth defects," says Karen French, a special assistant to Migden, who worked on the bill. That information won't be on product labels, but it will be accessible online.

Reading the labels

Even being a diligent label-reader doesn't necessarily mean you can figure out what kinds of products you want to buy.

For example, the claims written on many cosmetics and lotions are not backed up by any federal agency, the way "organic" claims on foodstuffs are backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"(The FDA) tried to insist in the '70s that if a product had the word 'hypoallergenic' or 'dermatologist-tested' or 'fragrance-free' on it that it mean something," says Anne Singer of the Environmental Working Group. "The FDA has tried to write guidelines for the phrases that marketers invented. But it's an empty statement if the body lotion you buy says 'noncomedogenic' (doesn't cause pimples). It doesn't mean anything in the real world. There's no standard."

The statement "fragrance free" may also mean something different to the consumer reading the label than to the industry.

The way cosmetics companies generally use "fragrance free," it means that no fragrance has been added to make the product smell like something. But fragrance added to counteract the natural smell of the ingredients doesn't count. Those products, according to industry standards, can still be labeled "fragrance free."

Furthermore, companies are not required to list every single ingredient on their labels. "Fragrance" or "flavoring" (often at the end of ingredient lists) can be composed of 30 or 40 chemicals.

And even if they did list all ingredients, that doesn't mean they'd be easy to read.

"It's really difficult for the average consumer, because the average consumer is not a chemist who's expected to know the (thousands of) ingredients in use in cosmetics," says Kevin Donegan, a spokesman for the Breast Cancer Fund, which is based in San Francisco. "It's pretty impossible for an average person to know and understand which ingredients can cause harm, so what we're working to do is improve the regulatory system so the FDA plays a stronger role in the evaluation of cosmetics."

Ingredients of (possible?) concern

The Environmental Working Group—a nongovernmental nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.—is planning to release today its newest "Skin Deep" report, which analyzed the ingredients of thousands of products and identified ones that contained possible carcinogens and "ingredients of concern."

Ingredients that come up repeatedly in the previous Skin Deep report are coal tar and lead acetate, often found in dark colors of hair dye; phthalates, plasticizers that some studies suggest may interfere with the development of male reproductive organs; formaldehyde, which may be present in nail polishes; and silica, which may be present in toothpaste and face powders.

"The chemicals' ability to cause cancer in humans is not absolute, but it's possible," says EWG spokeswoman Singer. "For us, that's all you need to know to not include it in a product that people are going to apply to their bodies."

The 200 companies that have vowed to eliminate ingredients of concern for their products include the Body Shop, Kiss My Face, Burt's Bees, Avalon Natural Products, Ecco Bella and Zia Natural Skincare. (View the whole list at http://www.safecosmetics.org.)

Industry response

The cosmetics industry—which vigorously opposed the Safe Cosmetics Act—says all this concern is ill-founded and hysterical. Nail polish, they say, is not a weapon of mass destruction. Perfume would have to be applied 5,000 times a day to reach any level of harm. They characterize the EWG as a radical group and dismiss its findings.

Marian Stanley of the Phthalate Esters Panel, which represents the major producers of phthalates, says that the studies linking phthalates to underdeveloped male reproductive organs are sketchy at best.

"The CPSC has done a thorough review of one of the phthalates used in toys and has found that there's little or no risk to health for children," she says. "The FDA has looked at the phthalates in cosmetics, not just in review, but in studies, and they don't see a problem with phthalates in cosmetics."
Nonetheless, the European Union recently banned two types of phthalates—dibutyl phthalate, used in nail polishes, and DEHP, diethylhexyl phthalate, used to attach ink to plastic bags and in screwdriver handles, for example.

As a result, many major cosmetics manufacturers, such as Estee Lauder (maker of MAC, Clinique, Prescriptives, Origins, Bobbi Brown) and Proctor and Gamble (Max Factor, Cover Girl) agreed to remove phthalates from their nail polishes—something the producers of course disagree with.

"I think it's taking useful products of the market for no reason," Stanley says