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What's the Price Beauty? The Safety Regulations Debate

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Stacy Malkan is the spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. She has been involved in chemical safety policy reform for ten years and is the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. 

When I interviewed her by telephone, Malkan reeled off numbers supporting her belief in the need for legislation.  She told me that only 13 percent of cosmetic chemicals have been publicly reviewed for safety; more than 70 percent of all personal care products may contain phthalates, which are linked to birth defects and infertility; there is evidence that some baby soaps contain the cancer causing chemical 1,4 dioxane, formaldehyde, or both.

Having checked the Skin Deep database, I was discouraged to learn that some of the items I use, advertised as “natural” or “eco-friendly,” had problems.  Malkan explained, “Even if an ingredient comes from a plant or is organic, it needs to be accessed for safety.”  Therefore, it is important to take into account that the labels “safe” and “natural” have no legal definitions.

Speaking about how big brands were working to capitalize on consumer interest in greener alternatives, Malkan referenced name players who were either creating alternative lines to their regular cosmetics or buying pre-existing “green” labels, while still using toxins in their other products.  She singled out Estée Lauder for specific criticism suggesting, “If they can use less parabens or formaldehyde releasing toxins in the Origins line, why don’t they extend that to their other products?  How can they support breast cancer research and at the same time have carcinogens in their makeup?”

Malkan described how cosmetic chemicals in shampoo, toothpaste, hand soap, and bath products wash down the drain into the national waterways—and end up in the fish that we eat.  Admitting that the big picture could be overwhelming, Malkan suggested that simple steps could reduce chemical exposure.  Her recommendations to individuals included, “Start by cutting a few things out of your beauty routine.  Less is more. Simpler is better.” Top advice was to avoid synthetic fragrance, and use fewer products overall—especially on babies and young children.

I asked her for a list of what she considered the most toxic components to avoid. They are:

Parabens: Widely used as a preservative in a range of personal care products.  They are suspected endocrine disruptors that can mimic estrogen in the body. Higher lifetime exposure to estrogen is a known risk factor for breast cancer.

Ethoxylated chemicals: Chemicals such as sodium laureth sulfate, PEGs, ceteareth-20 and other chemicals with “eth” in the name are often contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a probable human carcinogen that may also be toxic to the kidneys, brain and respiratory system, according to the California EPA

Triclosan in anti-bacterial soaps: This pesticide is found in a range of products including anti-bacterial hand soaps, dishwashing liquids, and toothpaste. Triclosan is associated with carcinogenic byproducts, and is linked to disruption of the thyroid hormone.  The U.S. FDA has found there is no evidence that triclosan soaps are more effective in killing germs than regular soap and water.

Hydroquinone in skin lightening and face creams: Banned in the European Union but legal in the United States, hydroquinone is a suspected carcinogen.

Coal tar-based hair dyes: Several coal tar-based ingredients have been found to cause cancer in lab animals. Studies of humans link long-time hair dye use with cancer, including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: Found in bath products and shampoos. Formaldehyde, is a known allergen and probable human carcinogen.

Fragrance: Studies have found that many fragrances contain sensitizing chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, and asthma attacks. Many fragrances contain diethyl phthalate, a chemical linked to sperm damage in adult men and abnormal reproductive development in baby boys.

On a positive note, Malkan referred me to a list of companies that have already signed a pledge to make safer products, available at The Compact for Safe Cosmetics. Additional resources include the EWG's 2010 Sunscreen Guide; the Whole Foods program tied to their Premium Body Care seal; the OPI nail company—which has reformulated its line of Nail Lacquers, Nail Treatments, and Nail Hardeners to eliminate DBP (dibutyl phthalate) and Toluene. (They have an “OPI Cares” link on their site describing their efforts).

Malkan sees the bill as an “incredible opportunity—a once in a generation possibility to put “health protective environmental regulations in place for the cosmetics industry.”  She is aware that not everyone sees it that way.  She told me, “The bill has certainly stirred up a lot of passion, which was to be expected since this is the first attempt to regulate an industry that has had very few regulations to deal with.”  She continued, “My view is that there are some legitimate questions about the bill, but there is a desire on the part of environmental groups to work together with small businesses to come up with a final bill that is meaningful and workable.”  She noted, "There are already people who are spreading disinformation about the bill and about environmental health science, which is not helpful to the debate on how to make the beauty industry as safe as it can be."

On an optimistic tone she concluded, “I think people’s behavior is already changing. The sales of green personal care products are growing faster than that of conventional products.”

“We don't live in a bubble.  Home use, food packaging, air and water pollution—we’re being doused with chemicals.  Cosmetics are the tip of the iceberg.  If we can do something about it, why not?” Janet Nudelman, of the Breast Cancer Fund underscored.  The organization’s mission is to prevent breast cancer by identifying and eliminating the environmental links to the disease.  “Consumers have the right to know,” Nudelman emphasized, pointing to transparency as the goal.  “Why do companies use harmful ingredients when they can do a product without it?” Nudelman asked rhetorically.  Her answer was, “Because they can, and there is no standard definition of safety.  It’s business as usual.  It’s what they have always done.” 

The Personal Care Products Council, based in Washington, D.C., doesn’t agree.  They describe their organization as the “leading national trade association representing the $250 billion global cosmetic and personal care products industry…whose member companies are global leaders committed to product safety, quality and innovation.”  They issued a statement in reaction to the Safe Cosmetics Act on July 21, through Lezlee Westine, the President and CEO of the Personal Care Products Council.

I spoke by telephone with Kathleen Dezio, Personal Care Council spokeswoman, to get a clearer perception of her organization’s position.  She told me, "We think our proposals are more rooted in practicality and efficacy in terms of product safety.  A regulatory regime for cosmetics that is stricter than the regulations for food, drugs, or medical devices is costly, unnecessary, and it's impractical."  I asked her if she would define the Personal Care Products Council as a lobbying organization.  She responded, "We do lobby like other trade associations, but that's a small part of what we do.  The largest part of our operations is scientific services for our member companies." 

Dezio does believe that "the FDA cosmetics regulatory structure should be contemporized," saying, “and have put forward a proposal we believe would effectively accomplish that. We have also lobbied for several years to secure more funding for FDA’s cosmetics office.” Yet she made clear,  "I think that a lot of the allegations being made about cosmetic ingredient safety are misrepresentations of what the scientific community thinks."  She pointed to a study conducted by the FDA published in July/August 2009 about lead in lipstick.  The FDA responded to the question, “Is there a safety concern about the lead found by FDA in lipsticks?” with the answer, “Lipstick, as a product intended for topical use, is only ingested incidentally and in very small quantities. The FDA does not consider the lead levels that it found in the lipsticks to be a safety concern.”  Nevertheless, the FDA went on to state that it will “continue to test for lead in a wider range of lipsticks, including lipsticks similar to those recently assessed for lead content by another laboratory.4

Nudelman believes that “for the last seventy years they [the council] have been lobbying against regulation of the industry.”  She told me, “We want companies to step up to the plate and say we want to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

The battle has just begun. Annie Leonard’s seven-minute video, The Story of Cosmetics, has already received over 300,000 hits on YouTube.  Dezio, in turn, responded with a statement about the animated short saying, “The content in this harsh and unscientific ‘shockumentary – genre’ video bears no relationship to the ‘real’ story of cosmetics.”

I contacted Rep. Schakowsky directly to find out how long it will take to move the legislation along.  Her estimate was that it would get to the next stage “early on in the next [Congressional] session.”  When I questioned her about the likelihood of pushback from the cosmetic and fragrance industries her reply was succinct: “We will work with them, or not, to make sure what ends up on the shelf is safe.”




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