Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hazardous Hygiene

The food and drug administration, or FDA, is responsible for monitoring the content of what people consume. But in this day and age, when chemicals and toxins seem to be appearing in the most unlikely of places, what the FDA is doing may not be enough. Personal care products, like shampoo, deodorant, and cosmetics contain ingredients that are hazardous to consumers' health. The toxic components can cause a myriad of health problems. For instance, some of these chemicals have been shown to cause cancer, and others may lead to reproductive complications. In small doses these toxins won't cause problems. However, over time people are exposed to these chemicals from multiple sources. It is this combined and lasting exposure that could cause build up of the substances and may have potential to do harm. The FDA does not regulate the production of personal care products. Some of the ingredients, such as the color additives, must be monitored and approved to be used in the products, however, there are no mandatory testing requirements or guidelines for the finished product.


Phthalates, industrial compounds used to give plastics their flexibility, have made their way into countless other products. These compounds have even become a staple in many common personal care products. Phthalates can be found in shampoo, deodorant, nail polish, and perfumes, just to name a few. They have many uses, a few of which are; to keep nail polish from chipping, hairspray from hardening, and fragrances from fading. There have been serious health concerns related to the use of these compounds, however, companies are not required to list phthalates in the ingredients.

The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester, found that phthalates could be linked to feminization in boys. Researchers showed a correlation between a mother's exposure to phthalates during pregnancy and changes in how male infants genitals developed.

Recently, the use of phthalates in toys for children under three was banned in California. The bill that Governor Schwarzenegger signed prohibits the manufacture, distribution and sale of toys that contain phthalates. According to the groups that sponsored the California movement, other states, including New York, are looking to take similar measures in the coming months.

Phthalates' potential side effects reach far beyond the reproductive system. Over the past several decades, allergies have been worsening in the developed world, despite an improvement in air quality. This observation prompted researchers to investigate other environmental factors, such as chemicals, that could be causing this increase. A study done by the Environmental Health Sciences Division at the National Institute for Environmental Studies, examined whether or not phthalates intensify allergic reactions. The results led researchers to believe that phthalates could be responsible for the rise in allergic reactions. Despite the negative findings and the desire to ban these toxins in toys, they are still being used in products that are applied directly to the skin.


Phalates are not the only harmful substance consumers should be aware of. Other toxins, like lead, can be found in cosmetics. Lead is a neurotoxin, which is not broken down by the body. This toxin builds up over time. Lead exposure can cause learning and behavioral problems, infertility, and miscarriage. Earlier this month, the results of an independent study done by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, showed that lead is present in several different brands of lipstick. Researchers tested 33 popular lipsticks, and detected lead in over half. One third of those tested had lead levels that exceeded the FDA's lead limit for candy.

Consumer Resources

Not every personal care product contains toxins. The presence and levels of chemicals vary between brands, lines, and even colors. Because the FDA does not regulate cosmetics and personal care products, it is up to consumers to educate themselves and monitor product ingredients. There are tools that may help people to do this. There is a consumer database, called Skin Deep, that rates the safety of products. Consumers can search for the products that they use, or browse the database by category. Each product is rated on a scale from one to ten, ten being the most hazardous. The product is then broken down, and the exact dangers are identified.

Some companies' products are safer to use than others. In an effort to foster a safer industry, many companies are complying with the stricter guidelines set by the European Union. Although there have only been nine cosmetic ingredients banned by the United States, over 1,000 have been prohibited in Europe. Complying with these regulations allows companies to sell the same merchandise worldwide, as well as providing a safer product for consumers.

The Compact for Global Production of Safe Health & Beauty Products, is an agreement that companies may voluntarily sign. By signing this agreement, companies pledge to reformulate globally to meet E.U. standards (European Standards). Several companies signed this document, and agreed not to use chemicals that may cause birth defects, or could be carcinogens. These companies have pledged to find alternative ingredients to use in their products. Although hundreds of companies have signed this agreement, many prominent corporations have not. Among those that refuse to sign are, OPI, Avon, Estee Lauder, L'Oreal, Revlon and Proctor and Gamble.

For more information on regulations and standards, consumers can visit the FDA's website. There is a page dedicated to cosmetic safety, and the regulations put on some of the components and additives. Guidelines for product labeling, animal testing, and some ingredient requirements are given as well. Information regarding the FDA's policies and authority in regard to cosmetics is also available.

1 comment:

Anala Tuenge said...

That is really scary. I think you do a great job of presenting the issue and making information availiable to consumers.

For me personally, I found the scientic information really intimidating, and you did a great job of explaining it in a way that ordinary people can understand.

I found the part about the European guidelines to be especially interesting. It caught my attention that the standards are different in Europe than here, and that the same cosmetics available here are prohibited in Europe.

I also think it's good that you made clear that not all personal care products contain toxins. Like any woman who wears makeup, I immediately started wondering about my cosmetic collection, and it was eased my mind when I clicked on the links you posted and saw that the makeup I wear isn't one of the ones to worry about.

More than anything, you showed consumers where to access the information they need to make informed decisions. Nice job!