Are Your Beauty Products Killing You?

If you got out of the shower this morning, blow-dried your hair and gave your 'do a spritz of VO5 hairspray, you've just poisoned yourself a little bit. If you do this every morning as your regular routine, you are accumulating these poisons by the bucketful.

But it's not just VO5 that could make you sick. Try Secret Sheer Dry deodorant, or the suitably named Poison, a perfume by Christian Dior. In fact, 52 popular cosmetics are now proven to have toxic components in varying concentrations -- and they're all over the place.

A report released jointly July 10 by Coming Clean, the Environmental Working Group and Health Care Without Harm details the extent to which a toxic family of chemicals known as phthalates (THAY-lates) are used in everyday household products, especially beauty products like nail polish, lipstick and perfumes.

The report, titled "Not Too Pretty: Pthalates, Beauty Products and the FDA," has its basis in a 1999 FDA study of toxins in the general population of the U.S. From a sample of 1,029 people, every one of them tested positive for phthalates in their blood or urine. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control singled out a subgroup of 289 people with a particularly high incidence of phthalates: women of childbearing age. These women were found to have daily exposures of phthalates ranging from 2.5 to 22 times the normal for the rest of the general population, with 5 percent showing levels of 75 percent or higher of the acceptable daily amounts.

Judging from the 5 percent of women with dangerously high test results, it can be assumed that every day, as many as two million women of childbearing age are exposed to toxic levels of phthalates.

Phthalates have been shown to cause a wide array of health problems, from liver and kidney failure to heart, lung and blood pressure problems. The most worrisome aspect by far is the phthalates' effect on the reproductive development of fetuses and infants, particularly the reproductive tracts of males.

Phthalates are metabolized in humans once ingested or absorbed through the skin. In pregnant women, phthalates pass through the placenta to be absorbed by the fetus. In nursing women, phthalates are found in breast milk, which means infants are ingesting these chemicals as they develop. In male fetuses -- and infants especially -- the phthalates have been shown to cause testicular atrophy and a reduced sperm count, among other serious health problems.

Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M University notes that some in the medical community have expressed concerns about phthalate exposure and human health. "It's hard to be specific until more medical data is available," Dr. Safe says, "but if people have concerns, they should limit their use of these products."

The HCWH report is the first to document and link the deleterious effects of phthalates to male reproductive development. Women of childbearing age were shown to be the most at-risk demographic, and it is reasonable to attribute this in large part to one fact: the beauty industry. According to Charlotte Brody, executive director of HCWH, "With all the variables involved, the only one that doesn't apply on a large scale to both men and women is the use of cosmetics."

Global Pollutants

Phthalates are plasticizers. In cosmetics, they are used to add texture and luster to the product. Ninety percent of the world's plasticizers are used to soften PVC (vinyl) and make it pliable. The other 10 percent have been used in many kinds of manufacturing for 30 years, beginning with medical products like IV bags, gloves and blood bags, but also paints, lubricants, adhesives, toys, food containers, and, of course, cosmetics.

The use of phthalates in manufacturing is widespread, and has such a long history that phthalates have wormed their way into every corner of the globe. Traces are present in virtually every person on the planet. The phthalate DEHP has been found in Antarctica and in deep-sea jellyfish 3,000 feet below the ocean's surface.

Different phthalates can be found in consumer products like shower curtains, umbrellas, adhesives, children's toys, and countless other manufactured goods. PVC, being incredibly cheap to produce, is the preferred product for the world's manufacturers. With phthalates, you can easily turn PVC into any number of products.

Turning the Tide

Since the FDA does not regulate the use of pthalates in cosmetics and beauty aids, manufacturers are not required to disclose them as ingredients.

Says the report: "Taken as a whole, the lab results indicate that a substantial fraction of cosmetics companies may be hiding phthalates on store shelves within the containers of their products, with no warning for pregnant women who might want to avoid purchasing products that contain chemicals linked to birth defects."

DEHP, the primary phthalate found in medical supplies, has been found toxic in studies of patients who spend considerable amounts of time in hospitals, mainly newborns and the elderly. But other phthalates, including DEP, DBP, BBP, DCP, DOP and DINP, were last studied nearly 20 years ago.

According to FDA spokesperson Kimberly Rawlings, "Phthalates were shown to be safe for topical use in 1984, and there have been no further studies by the FDA on this subject since then."

In a recent Dallas Morning News story on phthalates and the cosmetics industry, Rod Irvin, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council's Phthalate Esters Panel, said that "[p]hthalates are among the most-studied products out there. They have a long record of safe use, with no reports or evidence of harm to human health." Additionally, the industry group has spent "millions" studying the compounds and has found no reason for concern.

In November 2000, the Environmental Working Group released a report that stated, "Phthalates are recognized as toxic substances under environmental law, but companies are free to use unlimited amounts in cosmetics."

The FDA in the past has considered each of these phthalates separately when studying their toxicity. If you're a dialysis patient, then you're at risk for poisoning because you're getting twice the amount of DEHP recommended with each visit. That's bad. But if you're a dialysis patient and you wear a lot of makeup and spend a lot of time playing with your grandchildren and their toys, your exposure could be deadly.

Not in the many-faceted eyes of the FDA, though. Its consideration of disparate exposure to phthalates is the main loophole manufacturers use to claim that phthalates are safe. Without recognizing that all members of the phthalate family accumulate to cause the same health problems, phthalate manufacturers are able to claim that each individual chemical is not harmful at the documented levels.

HCWH tested 72 of the following kinds of cosmetics: Nail polish, fragrances (perfumes, body oils, etc.), hairsprays, deodorants and lotions. Fifty-two of these contained phthalates as ingredients, though none were listed on the labels. Most of the pthalate-containing products are household names: Aqua Net Professional Hair Spray; Degree Original Solid Deodorant; Nivea Créme lotion; Elizabeth Arden's Red Door fragrance; Calvin Klein's Eternity perfume.

As Brody of HCWH points out, this is just the beginning: "It's impossible to know without testing which products contain phthalates. Just because some of the lotions we tried tested negative doesn't mean [all lotions are] clean." Until the manufacturers are required to label phthalates, there's no way to know for sure.

Early Warnings

This is only the latest in a long series of warnings about the dangers of phthalates, which have been used extensively since the early 1970s. The biggest commotion over phthalates came in 1998, when the Danish government issued a well-publicized ban on toys containing phthalates because of concern that children were being exposed to toxic chemicals when they put toys in their mouths. Lego, the Danish toymaker, quickly responded by reformulating its toy factories to phase out the use of phthalates in production of its toys.

Since then, there has been steadily growing awareness of the dangers of phthalates. Network news programs have discussed the dangers in toys, cosmetics and beauty products, and even in fish that live in polluted waters. Despite all this, the battle against phthalates has been a stalemate: The EU continues to extend its temporary ban on toys for children aged 3 and under, but European manufacturers are lobbying to institute a voluntary reporting system for all other products similar to what is in place in the U.S.

Stacy Malkan of HCWH is urging people to distribute the lists of phthalate-containing products far and wide, to discuss the topic of phthalates in cosmetics and medical supplies with their health care provider, and to contact the FDA to demand an industry-wide ban on phthalates in cosmetic products. In addition, the groups releasing the report are preparing to launch a national ad campaign.

As the report makes clear, non-toxic alternatives are readily available: "The limited testing done for Not Too Pretty reveals that the same big companies that produce phthalate-laced beauty products, also make similar products without phthalates ... L'Oreal markets Jet Set nail polish without DBP but puts the phthalate in its Maybelline brand."

Without public pressure, however, there will be no incentive for the $20 billion-a-year cosmetics industry to phase out all phthalates. And women who continue to douse themselves in Christian Dior's Poison may be helping the perfume live up to its name.

For more information and the complete list of tested products, go to

Matt Wheeland is an editorial intern at

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