The Make-up Labyrinth

Understanding Cosmetics and Your Body

Despite a scattering of media reports over the years, most consumers don’t give much thought to the recognized allergens, probable carcinogens, hormone disrupters and inadequately tested industrial chemicals in the perfumes, nail polishes, shampoos and other personal-care products lining the shelves of U.S. drugstores, department stores and specialty retailers. However, this seemingly well-kept industry secret has been on the radars of consumer and environmental groups, as well as concerned doctors and scientists, for years.

© Lisa Blackshear

So, who is responsible? Who is regulating the cosmetics and personal-care industry and looking out for consumer safety? The cosmetics industry will direct you to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FDA will direct you to the Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) panel, and the CIR will gladly tell you about all the wonderful research they are doing in the name of safety to keep consumers happy and healthy. But don’t count on being reminded that they’re funded by the very companies whose ingredients and products must pass their review board prior to entering the consumer market.

Safe as Directed?

According to Clinique brand representative Darin Stechman, "Product safety has always been a top priority at Clinique Laboratories, and is ensured through state-of-the-art testing methods." However, this testing, according to Stechman, does not include tests that establish the long-term toxicity potential, carcinogenic properties, systemic absorption properties or chronic effects of daily use. Instead, cosmetics companies focus their research and both animal and human trial tests on assessing pre-marketed products for allergenic reactions and skin irritations.

As a result, according to Susan Roll of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, "one-third of personal-care products contain ingredients classified as possible human carcinogens." The FDA is largely focusing its attentions elsewhere. Of the agency’s $800 million annual budget, less than one percent goes toward regulating the cosmetics industry. Despite common public perceptions, neither the FDA nor any other government regulatory body actively assesses the safety of cosmetics before they go on your skin, your eyelashes, into your hair or onto your lips.

Cosmetics companies have the privilege of choosing from thousands of ingredients to create and market a hip new shade of eye shadow that you can buy at your local drugstore for your big Saturday night out. According to FDA Consumer, "In 1994, FDA headquarters received approximately 200 reports of adverse reactions to cosmetics. Skin-care products and makeup accounted for about 65." Was the FDA able to pull these cosmetics from the market? No, because as FDA Consumer put it, "The agency can’t do much about isolated allergic reactions or irritation problems. It’s up to the individual to avoid the product that caused the reaction."

In fact, there’s no law that regulates corporate use of phrases like "hypoallergenic," "allergy tested," "dermatologist tested" and "no animal testing." According to John E. Bailey, director of FDA’s Office of Colors and Cosmetics, "The term hypoallergenic can mean almost anything to anybody," and the same is true for the other terms. In individual cases, the use of these claims might be backed up by substantial research, or they may not.

Not Too Pretty

The CIR is internally funded, and the FDA is under-funded, so where can concerned consumers turn to get third-party health and safety information on cosmetics? Cue the Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG has been dedicating untold hours since 2000 to compiling health and safety information for consumers on personal-care products. A quick visit to will provide you with copious information about cosmetic dangers and lax regulation.

One EWG project of particular interest is the Not Too Pretty campaign, launched in 2002, which raises serious questions about the safety of phthalates (pronounced tha-lates). Phthalates are a large family of industrial chemicals used for their plasticizing properties in nail polishes and in dozens of plastic products, from shower curtains to food wrap; and for their scent-prolonging feature in fragrances. Numerous animal tests have linked high, prolonged doses of phthalates to serious harm, and some experts have cited phthalates as potential reproductive toxins and mutagens. One recent study, led by Dr. Shanna Swan of the University of Missouri, identified developmental abnormalities in male infants correlating to high phthalate levels in the infants" mothers" bodies.

The industry website asserts, "There is no reliable evidence that any phthalate has ever caused a health problem for a human from its intended use." The site accuses organizations of "cherry picking" results "showing impacts on test animals to create unwarranted concern about these products." But Lauren E. Sucher, a spokesperson for EWG, suggests that, to be safe, people should avoid phthalates, especially women who are pregnant, nursing or planning on becoming pregnant.

Another EWG investigation resulted in the Skin Deep on-line database, which lists some 7,500 individual personal-care product health and safety reviews. Reviews can be compiled into personal reports so consumers can assess their individual daily chemical exposure.

The cosmetics industry has heavily criticized EWG’s work, but Sucher responds, "They haven’t ever written us a formal letter pointing out any mistakes. If we’re wrong we’d love to know, because it is in our interest to provide the public with accurate information."

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union has been working on its Cosmetics Directive, a regulatory action that requires European cosmetic companies and international companies marketing their products in the EU to eliminate chemicals in their products that are known or strongly suspected of being carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins. The directive bans 450 of the 5,000 ingredients (including phthalates) now readily available for use in cosmetic formulations.

In Sucher’s opinion, concerned consumers may not even be asking the right questions. She explains, "The chemicals to look out for are not necessarily the most commonly used or even clearly listed." For example, phthalates are rarely named directly on packaging, and are frequently alluded to by the vague reference "fragrance." In fact, this single word can hide a blend of some 4,000 chemicals, and the vagueness is generally allowed in the interests of protecting companies" "trade secret" formulations.

Recently, under pressure from the EWG, the FDA has put the cosmetics industry on notice that it intends to begin enforcing a 1975 law requiring labels on products that contain ingredients that haven’t been tested for safety (such testing is not required by law). This warning is supposed to read: "Warning: the safety of this product has not been determined."

According to the EWG, this label remains to be seen on U.S. products, even though the group estimates 99 percent of the cosmetics products on the market contain one or more untested ingredients.

Natural Alternatives

A variety of companies are now making personal-care products based on more natural, and often organic, ingredients, paralleling the rise of the natural foods movement. But be forewarned: marketing claims may still be inflated. The debate over organic labeling of cosmetics also continues to rage on (see "Body-Care Brawl," Consumer News, March/April 2004).

In August, the USDA reversed a previous ruling and will now allow cosmetics, among other products, to carry the distinctive green organic seal as long as all the federal requirements are met. In recent years, a variety of products made from more natural, plant-based ingredients have been widely available from such companies as Aveda, Aubrey Organics, Earth’s Beauty, Ecco Bella, Grateful Body, Jakaré, Nature’s Gate, TerrEssentials and Dr. Bronner"s.

"It’s up to you to be a conscious consumer," concludes Sucher. Read labels carefully and skeptically. If you do suffer a reaction to a product, report it to the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, Cosmetic Adverse Reaction Monitoring Program at (202)205-4706.

Buying cosmetics can be like a trial-and-error experience. But if enough of us make our concerns about safety known, maybe shopping for cosmetics will one day become less of a daunting—and potentially dangerous—affair.

SHAUNA DINEEN is an E intern who carefully scrutinizes labels.