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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.


From the pages of every mainstream women's magazine -- between the list of 43 things every confident woman knows and the six-week ab-blasting plan -- the ads beckon. Conditioners enriched with vitamins vow to make each strand 10 times stronger. Undereye concealers containing white-tea antioxidants claim to combat the cellular damage that deepens those oh-so-unsightly dark circles. Pricey foundations promise to rejuvenate the face at the molecular level with the new Pro-Xylane compound, carefully extracted from Eastern European beech trees. These days, more and more personal care products are promising to harness the power of nature to beautify us from the inside out. Makeup doesn't merely make us look good, we're told -- now it's good for us, too.

There's more to the trend than just a general increase in health consciousness and green chic. These marketing maneuvers are, in part, calculated responses to consumers' growing desire to soap up and make up both safely and ethically. And who can blame them, when news outlets buzz with scary facts and figures? Consider the headlines from last fall, when the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics -- a coalition of environmental, health, and women's advocacy groups -- had 33 name-brand lipsticks tested at an independent laboratory. The results were unsettling enough to wipe the glossy grin off anyone's face: Fully one-third contained lead at levels exceeding the FDA's o.1 ppm (parts per million) limit for candy. The Personal Care Products Council, the trade group representing more than 600 of the beauty biz's biggest names, responded by insisting that any suspect substances in their products occur at quantities too small to cause harm -- even if the medical community agrees that there's no such thing as a "safe" blood level for the highly toxic metal. But the widely reported lipstick story may be one of the milder manifestations of products that mix beauty with danger. When it comes to cosmetics, women's health is getting the kiss-off.

Makeup menaces are nothing new: Some Elizabethan enchantresses died for their love of white lead–laced face powder, and Victorian vamps used deadly nightshade to lend their eyes an alluring glow. But today, when a $50-billion cosmetics industry has replaced apothecaries and home brewers, we expect the FDA to protect the public from dangerous beauty aids. Yet while its name might lead us to think otherwise, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gives the FDA far more regulatory power over food additives and drugs than over cosmetics; the agency isn't authorized to approve cosmetic products or ingredients before they hit the shelves. Manufacturers are under no legal obligation to register with the FDA, file data on ingredient safety, or report injuries caused by their products. The European Union has banned 1,132 known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins from use in cosmetics, but only 10 such chemicals are banned in the United States, leaving us with mercury in mascara, petrochemicals in perfumes, and parabens in antiperspirants. And just as none of the offending lipsticks' labels indicated the presence of lead, the FDA allows potentially hazardous chemicals like phthalates -- industrial solvents linked to birth defects in boys' reproductive systems and premature puberty in girls -- to slip into ingredient lists under the umbrella term "fragrance." 

This lack of oversight allows the cosmetics industry to create its own definitions of safety. The prevailing standard is to test new products for short-term reactions -- that means your foundation is deemed safe if it doesn't turn your skin green when applied as directed. But the trials reveal nothing about the long-term effects of daily exposure or the combined interaction of multiple products. 

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