The Ugly Side of Pretty

"I don't pay much attention to the ingredient lists, I just know what works for me," said Shelley Carpenter, when asked what she looks for in her personal care products. Thinking a little harder, she adds, "I'm allergic to most perfumes, so I stay away from smelly stuff. But I couldn't pin it down." This begs the question, "Who can?" After all, how many of us have the time or inclination to scour the ingredient lists of our moisturizer, deodorant, body lotion and any of the other products we slather on daily?

Carpenter, 45, bases her choices of personal body care products primarily on how her skin immediately reacts to them, and second to that, their functionality. Her skin, beautifully clear and alabaster, erupts into a red, scaly rash at the slightest provocation and she's aware from years of trial and error that certain products set this in motion.

But beyond skin eruptions and rashes, emerging science suggests that untold numbers of cosmetics and personal care ingredients may be silently and insidiously promoting cancer, ravaging women's reproductive functions and causing birth defects. Known by hundreds of long, intimidating chemical names, these ingredients are in the products we shower and bathe with, rub, spray and dab on our bodies, unconsciously, day-in-and-day-out.

It's the day-in-and-day-out part that's of most concern, since these toxic ingredients leak their poisons through our porous skin and into our bodies bit-by-bit. "There's not one smoking gun that we can point to and say 'it's that personal care product, that deodorant, that nail polish that is going to give you cancer," said Jeanne Rizzo, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund. "We can say the cumulative exposure -- the aggregate exposure that we all have to a myriad of personal care products containing carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins, has not been assessed."

Categorically, the giant, mainstream personal care products companies continue to use known or suspected toxic ingredients in their product formulas. There are literally thousands of substances that have been used for decades without the slightest hint to consumers that they may be doing something more than making us squeaky clean and smell good. As activist Charlotte Brody points out, "Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they are sold to the public. And the FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing."

Hence, chemicals such as acrylamide (in foundation, face lotion and hand cream) linked to mammary tumors in lab research; formaldehyde (found in nail polish and blush) classified as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency; and dibutyl phthalate (an industrial chemical commonly found in perfume and hair spray) known to damage the liver, kidney and reproductive systems, disrupt hormonal processes and increase breast cancer risk, are widely used in beauty products.

So should Shelley Carpenter be aware of this? She's certainly no slouch. She's a clinical hospital pharmacist advising doctors on the complex nuances of drug therapies; she's also working on her doctorate in pharmacy while being a mom and wife. Point is, like most of us, she's over-extended and assumes -- like most of us, that whatever personal care products we casually grab off the store shelf must be OK or, well, they wouldn't be sold. In other words, we think, "There's somebody watching out for us, probably some government agency."

"The public, bless our little democratic good government hearts, believes that there is some federal agency that makes sure that dangerous chemicals aren't put into the products we put all over ourselves. Sadly, it's just not true," quips Brody, who's executive director of Commonweal. It, along with Rizzo's Breast Cancer Fund and dozens of other social profit groups, are waging the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They're banging the drum to rouse consumers from our slumber of ignorance to realize the dangers lurking in personal care products and the failure -- or refusal -- of any power to change it.

The Innocents and the Knowing

If you believe that buying "natural" cosmetics and personal care products (those brands usually found in natural health stores and the like) guarantees toxin-free ingredients, you are wrong. The reasons for this are dicey with dollops of gray shading. It comes down to a spectrum that runs from 1) companies that know better but willfully use toxic ingredients to 2) well-intending natural products companies that heretofore operated out of ignorance.

But to understand this, we need to go to Europe for some perspective. The European Union (EU), with its 25 member countries, is taking a more enlightened (or a less Draconian) approach to protecting its 450 million people from toxins in personal care products. As of this March, an EU "Cosmetics Directive," will require companies doing business in Europe to eliminate chemicals in personal care products known or strongly suspected of causing "harm to human health." Although there are thousands of questionable chemicals, the directive is targeting about 450, which is huge compared to the nine chemicals that the FDA has banned or restricted in personal care products.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has seized upon the EU's Cosmetic Directive and is urging consumers to sign a petition that asks U.S. companies to commit to meeting the same standards as their European counterparts and then beyond. So far, some 50 companies have signed the campaign's compact -- all of them are natural products companies. Not one single, large, mainstream company has stepped forward, according to Janet Nudelman, coordinator of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "We've had dozens of conversations with these companies and they are absolutely unwilling to admit there's a single chemical that represents harm or could be harmful to consumers in their products," Nudelman said.

Problem is, they don't have to. Major loopholes in federal law allow the $35 billion cosmetics industry to, basically, police itself, allowing unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no monitoring of health effects and inadequate labeling requirements.

"The U.S. government, in relation to the FDA, has not been on the side of consumers and has not been on the side of public health," Nudelman said. "We certainly see that when we see industry representatives serving on government panels that are looking to the very issue that they are supposed to be regulating -- and that is consumer safety. Is the fox guarding the hen house? Yeah, absolutely in the U.S. without question."

However, consumers increasingly have a safe option in those "natural products" companies that have signed the Safe Cosmetics compact pledging to eliminate any questionable chemicals in the personal care products they sell. "The natural products companies may not be all pure and 100 percent where it is we want them to be, but the important thing is that they want to be there, and they're committed to getting there," Nudelman said. "We're talking about literally a massive reformulation on the part of many of these companies in order to meet the core components [of the compact]."

California-based Avalon Natural Products, with three different brands, including Avalon Organics, is one of those companies, reformulating more than 100 skin care products to eliminate questionable ingredients. For a casual observer, it's difficult to fathom why a "natural product" would even have this problem since chemicals like parabens aren't "natural" in the first place -- yet are pervasive in natural products.

Avalon brand manager Tim Schaeffer acknowledged the paradox, which stems from the complexity of preserving natural ingredients in packaged form. Parabens are used as preservatives to inhibit bacteria, yeast and mold growth.

"It's a big challenge to keep natural products from literally rotting. You buy them off a shelf in a store, where they were probably sitting for a month and before that in a warehouse for another month. Then you bring them home and put them in a warm, moist environment where they'll sit for six months or longer ... some things like a deodorant or cream you're putting your fingers in or rubbing in your armpit on a daily basis. That's a pretty tough environment to resist rotting. So preservation for products such as ours that have a lot of organic oils and herbs, is absolutely necessary."

Additionally, parabens (and thousands of other questionable ingredients), have always been legal to use in the U.S. and Canada, and only until recently, when studies have drawn correlations between their use and breast cancer, has concern been raised. Up to this time, many -- possibly most -- makers of natural personal care products were not aware of the hazards of these ingredients. Signers of the compact have scrambled to find effective natural alternatives.

Here's How to Check for Toxins in Your Products

In a massive undertaking, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed the health and safety reviews of 10,000 ingredients in personal care products. The EWG discovered that there is scant research available to document the safety or health risks of low-dose repeated exposures to chemical mixtures. But the absence of data should never be mistaken for proof of safety. The EWG points out that the more we study low-dose exposures, the more we understand that they can cause adverse effects ranging from the subtle and reversible, to effects that are more serious and permanent.

Based on that, the EWG has developed Skin Deep, a sophisticated online rating system that ranks brand-name products on their potential health risks and the absence of basic safety evaluations. To try out its usefulness, we ran a list of the personal care products that Shelley Carpenter uses (see chart). Six of the approximately 10 products she applies daily were recognized and scored. Among those was one product that may pose cancer risks and three products with ingredients that may contain impurities linked to breast cancer; another two, called "penetration enhancers," increase exposure to other products that are carcinogenic, six of the products contain ingredients that are unstudied or lack sufficient safety data and, despite Carpenter's efforts to avoid them, one product contains ingredients that are allergens. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being of the highest health concern, Carpenter's score was a 6.7. What's yours?

Janet Nudelman, of the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, says she uses Skin Deep regularly to look up ingredients in personal care products to get a safety reading -- and make a purchase decision based on the results. "Consumers have real power they are not exercising," she said. "We need to let cosmetic companies know we're going to not buy their products unless they make a strong unwavering commitment to safety."

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