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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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In other words, not much has changed since the late 19th century, when Ladies' Home Journal publisher Cyrus Curtis made it clear that readers were not the magazine's real customers, querying an audience of advertisers, "Do you know why we publish the Ladies' Home Journal ? The editor thinks it is for the benefit of the American woman ... The real reason, the publisher's reason, is to give you people who manufacture things that American women want and buy a chance to tell them about your products." With some of the industry's lowest subscription prices and highest production costs, today's women's magazines are still totally dependent on advertising revenue. But devoting two-thirds of their pages to ads isn't enough when it comes to courting cosmetics companies. Magazines like Allure and Essence actually conduct market research for them, and the expectation that such glossies will provide complementary copy is a given -- if they don't want to suffer the same punishment Ms. did when its brief report about congressional hearings on hair-dye safety in the late 1980s prompted Clairol to withdraw all its ads. In this context, even vaguely critical articles may be considered a threat to such ad-heavy publications' survival, especially since cosmetics represent the top magazine-ad category in the United States.


Though women's magazines may be giving cosmetics companies a free pass, there is evidence that the special status enjoyed by the industry is being challenged. On January 1, 2007, the California Safe Cosmetic Act of 2005 went into effect, forcing cosmetics companies to disclose when products contain any ingredient on governmental lists of harmful chemicals. This landmark legislation also authorizes the state to launch its own investigations into ingredient safety and requires manufacturers to supply their health effects data. Other states are following California's lead: In December, Minnesota became the first state to ban mercury from cosmetics, and similar legislation is currently in committee in Washington. 


Such developments put the Personal Care Products Council on the defensive. As a 2005 Breast Cancer Fund report revealed, the trade group spent $600,000 lobbying against the California bill's passage. Hoping to divert web surfers from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website (safecosmetics.org), the trade group even launched the similar-sounding cosmeticsaresafe.org to claim that California's cosmetics were already "the safest in the world." The Council has also expanded its pr team, hosted "Fragrance Days" on Capitol Hill to ply legislators with Armani and Dior perfumes, and last November jettisoned its old name, the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association. With the name change came a new slogan ("Committed to safety, quality, and innovation") and a new neutral-sounding website geared to consumers (cosmeticsinfo.org) that touts the safety of cosmetics -- even as the lengthy disclaimer disavows any claim to the completeness or accuracy of the site's assertions. Safety comes first in the Council's new catchphrase, but the group's resistance to all nonvoluntary regulation makes it hard to believe it has nothing to hide. 


Ironically, the charitable cause of choice for the major cosmetics companies, from Avon to Mary Kay to Revlon, just happens to be breast cancer -- the now-famed pink-ribbon campaign was first popularized by an Estée Lauder insert in Self magazine. It's a state of affairs that leads to some mighty mixed messages. For almost two decades, the Personal Care Products Council has sponsored the American Cancer Society's Look Good ... Feel Better campaign, which offers free cosmetics kits and beauty workshops to patients who've undergone chemotherapy and radiation. This program has inspired many a feel-good story in mags like Women's Wear Daily and takes an empowering mantra as its tagline: "For women in cancer treatment. And in charge of their lives." But being in charge of our lives should also mean being able to make informed decisions about the products we buy. While many women surely appreciate the program, they might also "feel better" knowing that their free makeup bag doesn't contain ingredients known to be carcinogenic -- and knowing that the American Cancer Society's near-silence on environmental causes of cancer doesn't have anything to do with the financial support it receives from cosmetics companies and chemical corporations. 


 
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