Are Your Cosmetics Toxic? New Bill Could Make Makeup Safe

Jul 21, 2010
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

For the first time in 70 years, a major effort to overhaul cosmetic regulations is underway. The bill, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, was introduced on July 21, 2010.

If it passes, the bill will create federal regulations to phase out chemicals in personal care products that are linked to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses, and will require greater transparency with regard to the ingredients in our favorite shampoos, deodorants and makeup. 

That pouty mouth could be bad for your health. (Photo: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) introduced the bill.

Stacy Malkan, co-founder of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and author of Not Just Another Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, spoke to TakePart about the current lack of federal cosmetic regulations.

"Current regulations give the FDA almost no power to do anything to ensure cosmetic safety," she says. "Companies don’t have to conduct safety assessments, it’s legal to use nearly any chemical in personal care products without doing safety assessments, and they don’t have to list everything on the label."

While skin-silkening lotion, vanilla-scented perfume and long-lasting red lipstick sound like a girl’s dream, in reality, these products can be full of toxins like phthalates, lead and 1,4 dioxane, Malkan explained to TakePart.

Worse, some beauty products are labeled organic or natural. But guess what? That doesn’t mean they are.

Malkan states that as of now, “There are no legal standards for natural or organic for personal care products. You’ve got to read the label.”

But reading the label is also tricky.

Manufacturers are required to list their ingredients on labels, but “contaminants and fragrance are the two big loopholes,” Malkan says.

Contaminants or impurities, she explains “are when chemicals get contaminated through processing.”

Contaminants that have been found include formaldehyde—which is also used to preserve dead bodies—and lead in lipstick, which, as Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, and science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network says, “is hazardous.”

“A lot of these chemicals you’re putting on your skin are absorbed through the skin," Dr. Schettler says. "You can actually measure the chemicals that are in cosmetics in the blood and urine of people.”

Some of these chemicals are hidden in the word “fragrance." The catch-all term can be found on the label of personal care products like shampoo and deodorant.

Malkan says, “They don’t have to tell us what’s in fragrance. Fragrance can be made up of a dozen or more chemicals that aren’t listed on the label; you’ll just see the word fragrance.”

In the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Environmental Working Group’s May 2010 report, Not So Sexy, The Health Risk of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance, the results of laboratory tests revealed 38 secret chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, topped by American Eagle's Seventy Seven, Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle, and Britney Spears's Curious.

Dr. Schettler says, “There are fragrances that have estrogenic effects. They're weaker than estrogen but they do mimic estrogen. We have to think, what might the impact of that be particularly for a girl who is undergoing breast development?”

According to the National Cancer Institute, exposure to estrogen over a long period of time may increase the risk of breast cancer.

What’s ironic about the link to toxins and breast cancer is a term called pinkwashing.

Malkan explains: “This is when companies make you think they care about breast cancer by putting pink ribbons on their products—but their practices may actually be contributing to higher rates of the disease.”

Malkan sites Avon, Revlon and Estée Lauder as three pinkwashing brands. She says, “Unfortunately, all three companies use chemicals linked to cancer in their products.”

Marsh with her three kids, living a happier, healthier life. (Photo courtesy of Kristi Marsh)

Kristi Marsh of Massachusetts is no stranger to the connections toxins have to cancer. At 35, the wife and mother of three was diagnosed with breast cancer.

After her first round of chemotherapy, Marsh knew she had to heal and become strong enough for the next round.

She says, “As I was healing, I was learning that my body was rebuilding itself literally cell by cell, making new blood cells, a new roof of my mouth, new stomach lining. And I decided to commit to not doing anything else that would interfere or compromise with the body trying to do what it does.”

This decision started Marsh’s journey into uncovering the toxins not only in cosmetics but also in cleaning products and food. She completely transformed her life, and through workshops she is teaching others about how to ensure what they put on and in their bodies is safe.

Prior to Marsh’s diagnosis, she says, “I was dealing with a lot of little things. I was dealing with constant sinus infections. I had ear infections and a lot of mastitis. I always had a lot of these under-the-radar things that you don’t do a lot about.”

Since she changed her entire lifestyle, she says, “I haven’t had any of those issues. I personally feel that my body is inundated with a lot less now; so when it needs to fight something, it is able to take it on.”

Marsh started to cleanse her life of toxins by simply taking a shoebox, filling it up with personal care products and taking a look at Environmental Working Group’s online cosmetic safety database, Skin Deep.

With the database, you can type in your favorite cosmetics and personal care products to see if they are safe or harmful to your health.

On buying safe cosmetics, Malkan says, “To stop buying toxic products is important, but we can’t just shop our way out of this problem. We need to pass legislation so that we get to the point to where all products are safe, where we don’t have to worry, and where safe products are affordable and accessible for everyone.”

Annie Leonard the creator of The Story of Stuff agrees. Take a look at her newly launched video, The Story of Cosmetics to learn more.

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