GreenSpace: Concern for the peril of personal-care products

Posted: July 26, 2010

The wrinkles are here, and more are surely coming. Time for potion intervention.

But trying to figure out not only which cosmetics work, but also which ones are good for me and the planet is so complicated that it's just producing more wrinkles.

I thought all I had to do was find products not tested on animals. Now I realize that many products are, in effect, being tested on me.

And on my surroundings. Traces of personal care products are being detected in waterways.

All those products to make our hair shinier, lashes longer, cheeks pinker, and underarms sweeter may be more trouble than they're worth.

Lead, a neurotoxin, is in many lipsticks. Formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen, is used as a preservative in baby shampoo. And something called 1,4-dioxane, another probable carcinogen, is found in products that make suds. All are in tiny amounts.

Last week a coalition of organizations calling for safer personal care products - not just girlie stuff, but also things men use, and even creams we rub babies with - revved up their activism.

This coincided with the introduction of the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, which would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to ensure that the products we slather on our skin don't have harmful ingredients.

"Only a fraction of the ingredients have been assessed for their safety" by researchers independent of the companies, said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.), a cosponsor.

The industry pushed back vigorously, saying its products are safe.

Lezlee Westine of the Personal Care Products Council contended the legislation was not based on "credible and established scientific principles," and would mandate "unachievable" goals that would require hundreds of additional agency scientists and millions of dollars of funding.

The industry, by the way, has its own proposal to "modernize" the FDA's cosmetics regulatory structure, which is about 70 years old. It is requesting more oversight, including a formal process for FDA review of ingredients in cases where the public or others request it.

One thing is clear. There's a lot less FDA oversight than many people think. Just ask Linda Katz, director of the agency's Office of Cosmetics and Colors. In an online video on the FDA website, she noted that "consumers think we approve cosmetics, but we don't." She said the FDA regulates "in a post-market arena. We look at the safety issues once it's on the marketplace."

According to the Safe Cosmetics Coalition, the European Union has banned more than 1,000 cosmetic ingredients, the FDA just 11.

The industry points out that the substances watchdogs are concerned about are used in such minute quantities that they are all but inert.

What worries critics is the cumulative effect of incessant bedaubing and lacquering.

Plus, the synergistic effect. Supposedly, the average woman uses 12 personal care products a day (a vast underestimate for any teenager or woman over 40).

For those who want to delve further into the mountains of competing claims, check out the industry site www.cosmeticsinfo.org, and the watchdog site www.safecosmetics.org.

One of the Safe Cosmetics Coalition members, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, also maintains a database evaluating more than 25,000 products at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com.

By the way, the words organic and natural have no legal meaning when it comes to cosmetics, both the industry and the watchdogs say.

But Maryann Donovan, a cosmetics expert at the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, identified several chemicals that consumers who are worried should avoid: triclosan, a pesticide found in some toothpastes; anything with fragrance, which often is from synthetic musks that may have estrogenic effects; plus parabens and pthalates, which may disrupt hormones.

Julie Becker of Philadelphia's Fairmount section has been alert to product ingredients for years because she has sensitive skin. She thinks the precautionary principle should apply: If there's any doubt about an ingredient, use something else.

A public health adjunct professor at Temple University, she founded the nonprofit Women's Health and Environmental Network more than a decade ago. It recently joined the Safe Cosmetics Coalition.

Cosmetic labels don't have to list all their ingredients, but Becker tries to keep up.

"There is no longer a quick trip to the store," she says. "Between reading food labels and now reading personal care product labels, all I can say is, especially as we age, keep those bifocals handy."


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace.

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