The Ugly Side of Pretty

*By Rebecca Ephraim
AlterNet - April 6, 2005

DragonflyMedia - April 7, 2005


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.

'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-

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

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

'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

'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 her chart, previous page). 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.'

Take Action Now

Sign the consumer petition to encourage companies to
join the compact for Safe Cosmetics:
Purchase from the list of companies that have committed
to safe products:

Skin Deep interactive Web site:

Other Resources (Mentioned in this story)
Avalon Natural Products:
Breast Cancer Fund:

Health editor Rebecca Ephraim has become an avid label
reader of personal care products and devotee of 'Skin