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Did Make-Up Give My Wife Breast Cancer? The Ugly Truth Hidden by the Cosmetics Industry

The virtually unregulated beauty industry puts potential carcinogens in their products. Then they shower us with pink ribbons.

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And what if the FDA does determine that a cosmetic product being sold on the market is unsafe? “FDA does not have the legal authority to order a recall of a cosmetic,” a spokesman explained. “However, FDA works with firms to ensure that voluntary recalls are effective.” One exception provided by the FDA’s statutory authority is for cosmetics products with ingredients that are “adulterated and misbranded.”

The FDA’s lack of regulatory authority over perfumes and other fragrances is also troubling. In 2010, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group tested popular colognes and body sprays and found fourteen “secret chemicals not listed on the label.” These substances are linked to hormone disruption, skin irritation, and allergic reactions, according to several studies. The FDA did not test, much less ban, the products, which included American Eagle Seventy Seven, Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, and Britney Spears Curious.

It’s the same story with hair products. In August 2011, under pressure from consumer groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the FDA tested hair straighteners produced by a California company called Brazilian Blowout. The agency found high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, but did not request the manufacturer to pull the product off the market. The state of California is suing the company while the product remains on the market. The company has agreed to disclose the presence of formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout, which was previously labeled “formaldehyde free.” In the case of hair products used in beauty salons across the country, which often contain formaldehyde and other toxins, the FDA has even more limited authority to regulate.

The only exception to this pattern of lax regulation is telling: the FDA does vigorously regulate imported cosmetics. Just between January 2000 and December 2011, the FDA stopped more than 14,000 shipments from various countries abroad. That information led me back to the FDA. I wanted to know if they at least had any evidence of personal care products harming people in the U.S.

As it turns out, the FDA does collect reports of adverse reactions to personal care products through its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Adverse Event Reporting System (CAERS). (Should you care to drop them an email, the address is

The FDA was kind enough to let me read through 543 pages of complaints from users of different cosmetics products. People reported about products that burned their skin or caused their eyes to water, and that in some cases sent them to the emergency room. The names of the people involved were all redacted. I wondered how or if the agency was following up on these reports. Despite my queries, the FDA didn’t respond directly, instead referring me to their Web site, which doesn’t have the answers either.

Kathleen’s greatest fear when she was diagnosed with cancer was that our daughters, who were just then getting to the age where they would start to use cosmetics, would be at risk. Again, we can’t know for sure. But there is no doubt that the lax regulation of cosmetics exposes American girls and women—and men and boys as well—to an unknown health risk they do not need to be taking, even if definitive, unbiased science is not always available to evaluate each particular ingredient.

We know, for example, that the skin, our largest organ, easily absorbs cosmetic ingredients, safe or toxic. Repeated low-level exposures may accumulate through a person’s lifetime (such as lead in hair dyes and mercury in skin whiteners). Girls often start using cosmetics at a very young age, thereby increasing lifetime exposure. Puberty is a critical development time for both girls and boys, and exposure to reproductive and/or hormonal toxins often starts before.

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