There might not be a skunk in your woodpile, but definitely├é┬á there’s one in your makeup.
Scientists say that some of the chemicals found in commonly used health and beauty products can, in sufficient quantity, cause cancer, birth defects or disrupt hormone function. Ingredients called dibutyl phthalates — a chemical used to soften plastics and found in nail polish and countless other consumer items — have been linked to development problems in the male genitals of humans and rats.

“The government is supposed to protect the people from these sorts of things,” said Jimm Harrison, co-owner of Spirit of Beauty Nutritional Skin Care, a Bellevue-based company that strives to make safer, environmentally friendly products.

“Women for the most part thought that someone was minding the store in terms of the ingredients in cosmetics,” said Janet Nudelman, a policy director at the non-profit Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco. That’s not happening, she said.

“The cosmetics industry in the United States regulates itself,” Nudelman said. “That’s not the case in other countries.”

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for overseeing the safety of cosmetics, soaps, deodorants, shampoos, fragrances and other personal-care products.

Unlike the medicines regulated by the agency, these items aren’t reviewed by the FDA before they’re sold to consumers. If a product causes health problems once it’s on the market, the FDA can ask for safety information from the manufacturer to prove it’s OK.

Industry officials say the system works well and that there’s no cause for alarm.

“The proof is in the marketplace,” said John Bailey, former director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. “FDA gets very few consumer complaints about cosmetic products.”

Manufacturers must make sure the chemicals are safe, and if the products are used as instructed, they should not cause ill effects — even after years of use, said Bailey, now the vice president of science with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, a national trade group.

People are exposed to the chemicals when they are absorbed by the skin, inhaled as fumes or ingested, when applied as lipstick, for example. Environmentalists also worry about the ingredients getting swept up in the food chain as the chemicals are released with the millions of gallons of treated sewage waste that empties into rivers each day.

“The amount of absorption of cosmetics either through the skin or ingested from lipsticks is small, and thus the laws as written have been sufficient to ensure safety,” said Linda Katz, director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, in an e-mail. “If a safety issue arises, FDA does have the ability through enforcement to ensure that unsafe products are removed from the market.”

Agency spokeswoman Veronica Castro said no one was available to speak in person for this story.

Consumers are advised to read ingredient lists and shop carefully.

“The product choices they make impact their health and the environment,” said Margaret Shield of the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition.

But the labels on shampoo bottles and eye shadow can be tough to decode. Shoppers more interested in whether an item will give their hair bounce or extra shine can be stymied by dozens of tongue-twisting ingredients.

And seemingly more-straightforward labels calling items are “natural,” “organic” or “hypoallergenic” can be misleading. That’s because the FDA hasn’t established official definitions for these terms.

“So companies can use them on cosmetic labels to mean anything or nothing at all,” according to the FDA’s Web site.

Critics note that consumers use dozens of personal-care products daily and argue that potentially hazardous chemicals shouldn’t be used in the first place. The European Union has banned more than 1,000 ingredients considered unsafe for use in cosmetics. The FDA has banned nine.

Some big-name nail polish companies recently agreed to phase out the dibutyl phthalates. The chemical has been banned from use in personal-care products sold in the EU, but it is legal here.

Bailey said the nail polishes are safe: “In the (United States), the use of phthalates was well below any level of concern. The phasing out is a marketing decision, not a safety decision.”

There also are concerns about the increased use of nanotechnology — compounds thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. Because of their size, there’s potential for these nano-sized ingredients to penetrate human cells and tissues. The technology is already being used in anti-aging creams and sunscreens — but the labels don’t have to specify its use.

In the absence of stricter regulations, California lawmakers adopted the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005. It requires cosmetic manufacturers to give the state a list of ingredients in their products that can cause cancer or reproductive harm. Washington has a program for reducing exposure to select hazardous chemicals, but nothing specific to safeguards for cosmetics.

Nudelman is leading the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which drafted a pledge that more than 450 companies have signed onto vowing not to use chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects or mutations.

“You have to learn to trust the manufacturer that you’re buying from,” said Harrison, owner of Spirit of Beauty. “It’s difficult,” he said. “The consumer is really up for a challenge.”


Chemicals to avoid

Dibutyl phthalate
Risks: Prohibited for use in cosmetics in the EU; possible human reproductive or developmental toxin; endocrine disruptor
Found in: Nail polish

DEA (diethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine)
Risks: Can form carcinogens, cause skin irritation
Found in: All varieties of personal care products

Risks: Possible human reproductive or developmental toxin
Found in: Nail polish

Risks: Possible human carcinogen; restricted in EU cosmetics
Found in: Moisturizers, conditioners, skin masks

BHA (also called butylhydroxy anisole, BHA/BHT, butylhydroxyanisol)
Risks: Possible human carcinogen; endocrine disruptor
Found in: Various types of makeup, moisturizer, conditioner, etc.

Risks: Known human carcinogen
Found in: Nail polish

Parabens (methyl, butyl or propyl)
Risks: Still being determined; possible allergen, possible endocrine disrupter
Found in: All varieties of personal care products

Safer products

Some of the companies pledging to eliminate chemicals that can cause cancer, mutations or birth defects: The Body Shop, Burt’s Bees, Kiss My Face, Aubrey Organics, Avalon Natural Products


People are exposed to the chemicals by: absorbing them through their skin, ingesting them, inhaling fumes, and releasing them into the environment where they become part of the food chain.

Web resources

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