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Beauty Secret: Your Make-Up Can Kill You

When it comes to cosmetics, women's health is getting the kiss-off.


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It gets worse. Only 11 percent of the 10,000-plus ingredients used in personal care products have been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the safety panel established and funded by the Personal Care Products Council that -- conflict of interest be damned -- is the primary source of information for the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors. The industry touts the CIR as a scrupulous safeguard that renders outside oversight unnecessary, but in the more than three decades since it was founded, the panel has deemed a scant nine ingredients unsafe. And manufacturers aren't even under any obligation to follow the CIR's recommendations -- one of the nasty nine, the likely carcinogen hydroxyanisole, is still found in Porcelana skin cream, for instance. 


Our worries about such chemicals have actually become a boon to corporations. Sales in the natural and organic sector have seen double-digit growth annually for at least the past five years, far outpacing the industry as a whole. The last two years alone have seen L'Oréal, Colgate, and Clorox pay hundreds of millions to acquire such natural-beauty stalwarts as The Body Shop, Tom's of Maine, and Burt's Bees, respectively. But more than a few cosmetics manufacturers are playing fast and loose with terms like "organic," a word that can legally appear on personal care products containing only 1 percent certified organic contents. Some companies even use the chemical definition of the word rather than the agricultural one, so any ingredient containing carbon-based molecules gets the label. Other benign-sounding buzzwords, like the ubiquitous "natural," can be slapped on anything, since the FDA doesn't regulate their use in beauty marketing. 


Cosmetics ads that co-opt such language seek to assuage safety concerns while capitalizing on them, convincing buyers that the two concepts aren't just compatible, but codependent -- thus commercials for phenol- and paraben-filled ChapStick croon, "Healthy lips should never go naked." Elsewhere, a burgeoning number of "cosmeceuticals" promise to deliver that therapeutic vitamin E deeper via nanoparticles, but their health claims are similarly skin-deep. The FDA says nanoparticles exhibit "increased chemical and biological activity," and preliminary research in this largely uncharted field suggests that, when nanoized, even ordinarily benign ingredients might catalyze dna and organ damage. Yet companies like L'Oréal -- which ranks sixth among U.S. nanotechnology patent holders -- are filling their products with nanoparticles before the safety data comes in, often without giving notice on the label. 


Such marketing moves have been fueled by intensifying scrutiny of the cosmetics industry by mainstream media. A LexisNexis search reveals fewer than 10 stories about potential health hazards posed by cosmetics in U.S. newspapers in 1997; in 2007, there were more than 100, with feature stories running in the New York Times , the L.A. Times , USA Today , and the Washington Post , not to mention television, public radio, and online coverage. But while magazines like Ms. and Pink have run in-depth reports on cosmetics-safety issues, the mass-market women's glossies have largely sidestepped such discussions. And when they do address safety, they usually forgo systemic issues such as regulation and marketing for a strictly are-they-or-aren't-they-dangerous approach. One can guess what verdict is most often delivered. 


Consider "If Looks Could Kill," an article from the March 2007 issue of O magazine that describes the CIR as "a group of scientists and physicians responsible for assessing the safety of cosmetic ingredients in the United States" -- failing to mention that the panel reviews only a small fraction of ingredients, conducts no testing itself, focuses almost exclusively on short-term reactions, and is funded by an industry trade group with a vested financial interest in dispelling safety concerns. The piece quotes the panel's chair, who states, "Any and all potential carcinogenic ingredients in hair dyes were removed from the market years ago," and reinforces his words by noting that "manufacturers voluntarily removed" coal tar derivatives from hair dye decades ago. In fact, coal tar derivatives are still used in hundreds of hair colorants -- especially in darker dyes aimed at women of color -- and multiple recent studies have shown a significantly increased risk of bladder cancer among women who use the dyes frequently, as well as the stylists who work with them. 


 
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