News & Politics

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. 

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. 

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 (, the trade group even launched the similar-sounding 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 ( 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. 

The cosmetics industry may be trying its best to avoid transparency, but concerned women now have more tools to help them slice through the spin. Thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever to find information on the polysyllables in tiny print on the backs of bottles and tubes. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database compares the ingredients in more than 30,000 products against 50 toxicity and regulatory databases, and even Wikipedia offers links to peer-reviewed studies on ingredient safety. Watchdog groups like the Organic Consumers Association out products that are natural in name only, and grassroots organizations like Teens for Safe Cosmetics are lobbying legislators for tougher laws. And there are heartening moves from within the industry as well. Six hundred companies have signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics compact, pledging to remove toxic chemicals from their products, and in May the consumer-advocacy nonprofit Natural Products Association announced that a new seal will soon start appearing on products that are made from at least 95 percent natural ingredients and that are free from ingredients suspected of carrying human health risks. Such developments offer hope that the cosmetics industry can one day be forced to recognize that women's health merits more than just lip service. 

Jacqueline Houton is a writer and editor who lives in Cambridge, Mass. She recently earned her Master's in Writing & Publishing from Emerson College.
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