2007 Latest News
Potentially toxic cosmetics
have some people worried
By Abigail Leichman
The Record (Bergen, N.J.)
March 13, 2007
In the 1930s, several
women's eyes were damaged or blinded by Lash Lure, a
coal-tar-based mascara. So in 1938, Congress passed
the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act regulating chemical
Today, those FD&C dyes
remain the only cosmetic ingredients regulated by
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It has banned
nine others after investigating consumer complaints.
"If we had to approve
every cosmetic, it would be mind-boggling," said
Joan Lytle of the agency's North Brunswick office.
"Cosmetics firms are responsible for substantiating
How well do they do
that job? In the past 30 years, the industry's
Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel has completed
studies on just 10 percent of some 10,500 synthetic,
multisyllabic ingredients in products sold to us so
we can cleanse, beautify and deodorize.
That leaves many
question marks about the products' effectiveness and
"Many of us were
brought up on the slogan 'Better living through
chemistry,' but now there is more interest in the
ingredients we're putting on our faces," said
Elizabeth "Lily" Cohill, 48, the founder of Lily
Organics of Colorado. "Why would you want to rub on
toxic chemicals when you could use olive oil?"
It depends how you
define "toxic." Consumer advocate Paula Begoun
argues in "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without
Me" that it's "completely far-fetched" to assume
every man-made ingredient is bad for skin.
"The list of what to
avoid cannot be generalized," said dermatologist Dr.
Leslie Baumann, author of "The Skin Type Solution"
(Bantam, 2007) and medical adviser to 35 companies,
including Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena, Avon and
"Once you know ... if
you are sensitive or not, you will be able to find
products that work for you without causing
problems," Baumann said.
However, "problems" may
go deeper than what you see in the mirror, given
that skin is absorbent.
About one of every 100
personal-care products contains known or possible
carcinogens, claims the Environmental Working Group
(EWG), a watchdog organization in Washington, D.C.
"The vast majority of
decisions the industry's safety panel makes are
based on allergy and skin irritation," said Jane
Houlihan, vice president for research at EWG. "They
are not considering long-term chronic effects."
A coalition of health
and environmental groups, including the EWG and the
Breast Cancer Fund, is working with manufacturers to
eliminate or reformulate chemical ingredients
suspected of hazards as mild as skin irritation and
as serious as cancer, genetic mutation and nerve
Almost 500 companies
have so far signed on with the Campaign for Safe
Cosmetics. Industry giants such as L'Oreal, Revlon,
Estee Lauder, Avon, Unilever and Procter & Gamble
Last year, the EWG
persuaded the FDA to crack down on companies that
are violating a law requiring a safety warning on
cosmetics containing untested ingredients --
usually, artificial preservatives or fragrances.
But testing is
expensive and often involves controversial animal
studies. It's simpler to dodge the issue with
marketing strategies -- like adding and emphasizing
a single botanical ingredient in a sea of otherwise
Even if you bother
reading that hard-to-see list, "Cosmetics companies
are ... abbreviating or changing the names of
ingredients so you don't know what they really are,"
said Paula Conway, co-author of "The Beauty Buyble"
"Sodium lauryl sulfate,
a common ingredient that causes shampoo, toothpaste
and soap to foam, can be very damaging to the skin,
especially to the eyes. But if you just put 'SLS' in
the ingredient list, no one will know that's what it
is," Conway said.
controversial ingredients aren't listed at all.
Phthalates, linked to reproductive damage, are a
common hidden element of fragrances in body lotions,
hair sprays, perfumes and deodorants, according to
the most recent issue of Consumer Reports' ShopSmart
magazine. It recommends using perfume no more than
every other day and seeking out unscented
Label phrases like
"dermatologist tested," "all natural" and
"hypoallergenic" don't mean much, warns the FDA.
Ditto for the word "Dr." in a brand name.
conventional cosmetics are to thank for an increase
in mass-marketed organic and/or plant-based
personal-care products, a category that only
recently consisted of not much beyond the Tom's of
Maine brand -- which also is growing.
Most are small
manufacturers. Kena Sage mixes up perfumes and body
lotions at a Hackensack lab and sells them at a
Teaneck hair salon under the Cowrie Flowers brand.
Almond and jojoba oils, rose water, lavender and
rosemary, shea butter and Dead Sea salts are among
the few ingredients she puts in the products.
Begoun cautions that some plant extracts,
particularly fragrant ones like peppermint, lemon,
camphor and menthol, "are inherently potent sources
of skin problems."
The main issue with
botanically based products, however, is a much
shorter shelf life because they lack the chemical
preservatives that raise concerns in conventional
brands. Cohill and Sage say they have worked hard to
find natural preservatives -- Sage is experimenting
with vodka -- to push shelf life to six months or a
"We need to get over
the attitude that everything needs to last forever,"
said Cohill. "An average product will look the same
for about 20 years, and ... they're achieving that
by using [preservatives] that release formaldehyde."
Houlihan said she has
stopped using entire categories of products she
believes to be high-risk. "I don't wear lipstick
anymore, because you ingest it. And I've stopped
using nail polish and coloring my hair."
The good news?
"Manufacturers change about a third of their product
formulations every year," Houlihan said.
It pays to keep reading
labels on favorite brands, even if you need a
magnifying glass and a dictionary to do so.
* * *
Dos and don'ts
of personal care
If you have sensitive
skin, or you're concerned about ingredients in
personal-care products, follow these guidelines from
Dr. Zoe Diana Draelos, clinical associate professor
of dermatology at Wake Forest University School of
• Choose powdered
products when possible. They have few preservatives
and few ingredients that can cause skin irritation.
Women who prefer liquid foundation should choose a
• Use black
eyeliner and mascara. Black is the least allergenic
• Use pencil
eyeliner and eyebrow fillers. Liquid eyeliners
• Stick to tan,
cream, white or beige eye shadows. They cause less
• Wash makeup
brushes and sponges regularly, as they harbor dirt
• Use waterproof
cosmetics. The solvent required to remove them also
strips skin's natural oily barrier and exposes it to
• Use expired
cosmetics, as they may be spoiled or contaminated.
If there's no date, assume one year for foundation
and lipstick, three to four months for mascara and
two years for powder and shadows.
• Buy sunscreen
with active ingredients other than zinc oxide or
• Buy any product
that contains more than 10 ingredients.
• Use nail
polish. Many of its components are irritating and
Academy of Dermatology
* * *
About 500 cosmetics and
body-care manufacturers have promised to replace
possibly controversial ingredients with safer alternatives
within three years (see the full list at
Some of the targeted
• Coal tar.
Though carcinogenic, it's still used in many dark
permanent hair dyes.
phthalate (DBP). Found in nail polish and
moisturizers, this phthalate disrupts hormones and
may cause reproductive damage. OPI, Orly, Sally
Hansen Avon, Estee Lauder, Revlon and L'Oreal (which
also makes Maybelline) have agreed to remove DBP
from nail products.
(DEA). This and related ingredients that aid in
foaming and emulsifying personal-care products have
been linked to cancer in laboratory animals.
Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. DMDM
hydantoin, quaternium-15 and diazonlidnyl urea
release formaldehyde as they degrade. Formaldehyde
can cause irritation and allergic reactions and is a
The FDA recently proposed a ban on this ingredient
in skin-lightening products because it's a suspected
carcinogen and may lead to a rare disorder in the
skin of people of certain ethnic groups.
Butyl-, ethyl-, methyl- and propyl-parabens,
preservatives found in many deodorants and skin-care
products, mimic estrogen and may cause reproductive
damage. Parabens have been detected in cancerous
• Talc. Loose
powders, blushes, eye shadows and baby powder
contain up to 50 percent talc, a mineral that has
been linked to respiratory damage with long-term
Found in liquid hand soaps and toothpastes, this
anti-microbial compound can break down into toxic
components in the bottle and later in groundwater.
Check safety ratings
for thousands of personal-care products at
Get a printable,
purse-size list of ingredients to avoid at
For safe products without controversial ingredients or carcinogens