Can cosmetics harm you?

By Natalie Coreas
Staff Writer

Ingredients in consumer cosmetics and skin-care products could potentially be exposing the public to health risks from incomplete safety testing, according to a press release by a Washington, D.C. environmental advocacy organization.

In the press release, the Environmental Working Group responded to excerpts from a letter from the Food and Drug Administration detailing the role the FDA has in regulating cosmetics. According to the excerpts, the FDA explained that it currently cannot limit what cosmetics companies include into their products because “the [Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act] contains no provision that requires demonstration to FDA of the safety of ingredients of cosmetic products… prior to marketing the product.”

While the FDA has the power to stop the distribution of a misbranded or adulterated product with a court order, or require companies to put warning labels on their products, the FDA said due to a lack of information on the safety of the chemicals in cosmetics and without evidence of acute injury from the use of a product, the FDA is not able to enforce warning labels or obtain a court order to stop the distribution of a cosmetic product.

According to the EWG, a panel funded by the cosmetics industry named the Cosmetic Ingredient Review is the only body that reviews and tests the ingredients and chemicals found in cosmetics and personal care products. The industry uses the panel to police and review cosmetic additives, deciding if an ingredient is safe for limited use or general use, and in what concentrations.

In the FDA’s letter to EWG, the FDA said the recommendations made by the panel were not substantial enough to determine if an ingredient or chemical is safe for use, even though according to the EWG it is a common industry practice for the panel to be the only authoritative body to review cosmetic ingredients for safety.

Messages left for comment with Procter and Gamble, the manufacturer of Cover Girl and Max Factor cosmetics were not returned by press time.

“[T]he [Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act] does not authorize FDA to order a recall for a defective or possibly harmful cosmetic product,” wrote the FDA in the same response to the EWG. Currently, the FDA can only make a recommendation to have a certain product recalled, but ultimately cosmetic companies are at their discretion decide whether or not to conduct a voluntary recall of a product.

“Only 13 percent of the 10,500 ingredients in personal care products have been reviewed for safety by the cosmetic industry’s own review panel,” Jovana Ruzicic, press secretary for the EWG said in a May 2007 press release.

In the release, Ruzicic also announced the release of a revamped version of Skin Deep, an online database of more than 32,000 cosmetic and personal care products. Skin Deep uses over 50 toxicity and regulatory databases to cross reference any chemical or additive ingredient in a cosmetic product.

Skin Deep has eight major product categories, from makeup to fragrance. Those eight major categories are then broken down into 90 sub categories such as mascara, eyeliner, foundation, shampoo and conditioner.

“Scores in Skin Deep are based on safety information in publicly available toxicity databases, but since safety studies aren’t required by law, for many ingredients we find no publicly available information at all,” Ruzicic said.

Currently there are many chemicals found in popular cosmetic products that are suspected of causing health ailments, from cancer to birth defects to respiratory problems. These chemicals are found in everyday-use make up, such as foundation, eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, blush, lip gloss, lip balm, lipstick and powder.

Popular brands of mascara such as Cover Girl, Max Factor and Maybelline that were reviewed by Skin Deep were found to contain chemicals that according to Skin Deep are linked to several health ailments, including cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies, neurotoxicity, irritation to the skin, eyes or lungs. Cosmetic ingredients are then rated on a hazard scale from one to ten with ten having the greatest potential to be hazardous to consumers.

Individual cosmetic products are rated on a similar scale, computed by adding the hazard rating of each ingredient listed for a product.

While some chemicals may not cause ill effects from one exposure, the toxicity may increase from bio-accumulation, the cumulative effects of chemical concentrations in the body through repeated exposure either through the skin, inhalation or ingestion of chemicals. If the chemicals are not broken down as fast as they are absorbed they can become very toxic within the body, causing serious effects such as cancer, respiratory problems and skin allergies, according to

Estée Lauder, a company who owns many makeup companies, such as MAC, Clinique, Prescriptives, Crème De La Mer and Joe Malone, use large advertisements at stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s to make claims of “100% Fragrance free. Allergy tested” but do not directly address any individual chemicals contained in their makeup.

“Our products are tested by six hundred people, not animals, a total of three thousand times for allergic reactions. If one person has an allergic reaction, the testers go back to the drawing board,” Amy Mcutt, a Bloomingdale’s Clinique makeup counter manager said.

If consumers do not spend much time looking over the ingredients list of their makeup, the ingredients listed most likely appear very foreign to consumers. Many chemicals and compounds found in cosmetics can be hard to pronounce, and to decipher exactly what an ingredient can be extremely difficult for the general public, even with a chemistry reference.

One chemical listed in many products on Skin Deep the amine PPD (PPD), found in 71 percent of all hair dyes and bleaching products listed on Skin Deep. PPD is primarily used as either a dye or dye intermediate, helping hair color bond permanently with hair. According to Wikipedia and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site, the amine is also used as a photographic developing agent, a vulcanization accelerator and anti-oxidant for rubber, and in plastics and fibers such as Kevlar. PPD is also used in Black Henna, related only by name to the body paint Henna, derived from the leaves of the Lawsonia inermis, also known as Henna.

According to an alert on the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Web site, Black Henna is dangerous because it contains PPD, which the FDA has only approved for use in hair dye, but not as a product to perform the body-decorating process known as mehndi that Henna is well known for. The panel said that PPD is a skin sensitizer that could cause severe allergic reactions if used on skin. PPD is fine for use as a hair dye, as the amine “isn’t a huge concern when used in hair dyes because the material comes into contact with the skin only briefly,” the panel said.

“I use L’Oreal eye liner and Almay mascara. I buy it because I think their products are really good. I did know that cosmetics had chemicals in them. I know I’m risking it. I do believe that there is no way something can be completely natural. I think that if we hear that the cosmetics have chemicals it is up to us to stop buying the products. In the end I can’t blame the companies 100 percent if I develop symptoms because of those chemicals,” said City College student Nariman Taha.

In a thirty person survey that asked City College students what make up they used the most, only two said they used Bare Minerals. Three said they used Benefit, six said MAC, four said Cover Girl, two said Maybelline and the others ranged from Mary Kay to Urban Decay and Anna Sui.

Eighteen of the students surveyed said they were aware of the harmful chemicals that could harm them in the long run. Sixteen of the people said they took into consideration what was in their make up when they bought it, the others said no and that they didn’t care. Ten of those people said they cared about the quality of the makeup, while only eight said they cared about the price of the makeup. Other responses varied. One woman surveyed said she bought it because of the function to cover up wrinkles. A few students said the review from magazines influenced their decisions when buying makeup.

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