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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 colorants.

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 their claims."

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 safety.

"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 Allergan.

"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 damage.

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 have not.

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 tiny type.

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" (HarperCollins, 2006).

"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.

Some potentially 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 personal-care items.

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.

Concerns about 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.

Consumer advocate 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 year.

"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 Medicine:


  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 silicone-based brand.

  Use black eyeliner and mascara. Black is the least allergenic colorant.

  Use pencil eyeliner and eyebrow fillers. Liquid eyeliners contain latex.

  Stick to tan, cream, white or beige eye shadows. They cause less eyelid irritation.

  Wash makeup brushes and sponges regularly, as they harbor dirt and germs.


  Use waterproof cosmetics. The solvent required to remove them also strips skin's natural oily barrier and exposes it to potential irritants.

  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 titanium dioxide.

  Buy any product that contains more than 10 ingredients.

  Use nail polish. Many of its components are irritating and allergenic.

Source: American Academy of Dermatology
* * *

Suspect substances

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 safecosmetics.org/companies/signers.cfm).

Some of the targeted ingredients:

  Coal tar. Though carcinogenic, it's still used in many dark permanent hair dyes.

  Dibutyl 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.

  Diethanolamine (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 possible carcinogen.

  Hydroquinone. 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.

  Paraben. 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 breast tumors.

  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 use.

  Triclosan. 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 www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep2.

Get a printable, purse-size list of ingredients to avoid at www.breastcancerfund.org/safecosmetics.


For safe products without controversial ingredients or carcinogens

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