Are Your Beauty
Products Killing You?
A new report linking birth
defects and health risks with a chemical used in trendy cosmetics, gives
a long overdue wake-up call to the FDA, consumers and the beauty
If you got out of the shower this morning, blow-dried your hair and gave your
'do a spritz of VO5 hairspray, you've just poisoned yourself a little bit. If
you do this every morning as your regular routine, you are accumulating these
poisons by the bucketful.
But it's not just VO5 that could make you sick. Try Secret Sheer Dry
deodorant, or the suitably named Poison, a perfume by Christian Dior. In fact,
52 popular cosmetics are now proven to have toxic components in varying
concentrations -- and they're all over the place.
A report released jointly July 10 by Coming Clean, the Environmental Working
Group and Health Care Without Harm details the extent to which a toxic family of
chemicals known as phthalates (THAY-lates) are used in everyday household
products, especially beauty products like nail polish, lipstick and perfumes.
The report, titled "Not Too Pretty: Pthalates, Beauty Products and the
FDA," has its basis in a 1999 FDA study of toxins in the general population
of the U.S. From a sample of 1,029 people, every one of them tested positive for
phthalates in their blood or urine. Scientists at the Centers for Disease
Control singled out a subgroup of 289 people with a particularly high incidence
of phthalates: women of childbearing age. These women were found to have daily
exposures of phthalates ranging from 2.5 to 22 times the normal for the rest of
the general population, with 5 percent showing levels of 75 percent or higher of
the acceptable daily amounts.
Judging from the 5 percent of women with dangerously high test results, it
can be assumed that every day, as many as two million women of childbearing age
are exposed to toxic levels of phthalates.
Phthalates have been shown to cause a wide array of health problems, from
liver and kidney failure to heart, lung and blood pressure problems. The most
worrisome aspect by far is the phthalates' effect on the reproductive
development of fetuses and infants, particularly the reproductive tracts of
Phthalates are metabolized in humans once ingested or absorbed through the
skin. In pregnant women, phthalates pass through the placenta to be absorbed by
the fetus. In nursing women, phthalates are found in breast milk, which means
infants are ingesting these chemicals as they develop. In male fetuses -- and
infants especially -- the phthalates have been shown to cause testicular atrophy
and a reduced sperm count, among other serious health problems.
Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M University notes that some in the medical
community have expressed concerns about phthalate exposure and human health.
"It's hard to be specific until more medical data is available," Dr.
Safe says, "but if people have concerns, they should limit their use of
The HCWH report is the first to document and link the deleterious effects of
phthalates to male reproductive development. Women of childbearing age were
shown to be the most at-risk demographic, and it is reasonable to attribute this
in large part to one fact: the beauty industry. According to Charlotte Brody,
executive director of HCWH, "With all the variables involved, the only one
that doesn't apply on a large scale to both men and women is the use of
Phthalates are plasticizers. In cosmetics, they are used to add texture and
luster to the product. Ninety percent of the world's plasticizers are used to
soften PVC (vinyl) and make it pliable. The other 10 percent have been used in
many kinds of manufacturing for 30 years, beginning with medical products like
IV bags, gloves and blood bags, but also paints, lubricants, adhesives, toys,
food containers, and, of course, cosmetics.
The use of phthalates in manufacturing is widespread, and has such a long
history that phthalates have wormed their way into every corner of the globe.
Traces are present in virtually every person on the planet. The phthalate DEHP
has been found in Antarctica and in deep-sea jellyfish 3,000 feet below the
Different phthalates can be found in consumer products like shower curtains,
umbrellas, adhesives, children's toys, and countless other manufactured goods.
PVC, being incredibly cheap to produce, is the preferred product for the world's
manufacturers. With phthalates, you can easily turn PVC into any number of
Turning the Tide
Since the FDA does not regulate the use of pthalates in cosmetics and beauty
aids, manufacturers are not required to disclose them as ingredients.
Says the report: "Taken as a whole, the lab results indicate that a
substantial fraction of cosmetics companies may be hiding phthalates on store
shelves within the containers of their products, with no warning for pregnant
women who might want to avoid purchasing products that contain chemicals linked
to birth defects."
DEHP, the primary phthalate found in medical supplies, has been found toxic
in studies of patients who spend considerable amounts of time in hospitals,
mainly newborns and the elderly. But other phthalates, including DEP, DBP, BBP,
DCP, DOP and DINP, were last studied nearly 20 years ago.
According to FDA spokesperson Kimberly Rawlings, "Phthalates were shown
to be safe for topical use in 1984, and there have been no further studies by
the FDA on this subject since then."
In a recent Dallas Morning News story on phthalates and the cosmetics
industry, Rod Irvin, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council's Phthalate
Esters Panel, said that "[p]hthalates are among the most-studied products
out there. They have a long record of safe use, with no reports or evidence of
harm to human health." Additionally, the industry group has spent
"millions" studying the compounds and has found no reason for concern.
In November 2000, the Environmental Working Group released a report that
stated, "Phthalates are recognized as toxic substances under environmental
law, but companies are free to use unlimited amounts in cosmetics."
The FDA in the past has considered each of these phthalates separately when
studying their toxicity. If you're a dialysis patient, then you're at risk for
poisoning because you're getting twice the amount of DEHP recommended with each
visit. That's bad. But if you're a dialysis patient and you wear a lot of makeup
and spend a lot of time playing with your grandchildren and their toys,
your exposure could be deadly.
Not in the many-faceted eyes of the FDA, though. Its consideration of
disparate exposure to phthalates is the main loophole manufacturers use to claim
that phthalates are safe. Without recognizing that all members of the phthalate
family accumulate to cause the same health problems, phthalate manufacturers are
able to claim that each individual chemical is not harmful at the documented
HCWH tested 72 of the following kinds of cosmetics: Nail polish, fragrances
(perfumes, body oils, etc.), hairsprays, deodorants and lotions. Fifty-two of
these contained phthalates as ingredients, though none were listed on the
labels. Most of the pthalate-containing products are household names: Aqua Net
Professional Hair Spray; Degree Original Solid Deodorant; Nivea Cr魥
lotion; Elizabeth Arden's Red Door fragrance; Calvin Klein's Eternity perfume.
As Brody of HCWH points out, this is just the beginning: "It's
impossible to know without testing which products contain phthalates. Just
because some of the lotions we tried tested negative doesn't mean [all lotions
are] clean." Until the manufacturers are required to label phthalates,
there's no way to know for sure.
This is only the latest in a long series of warnings about the dangers of
phthalates, which have been used extensively since the early 1970s. The biggest
commotion over phthalates came in 1998, when the Danish government issued a
well-publicized ban on toys containing phthalates because of concern that
children were being exposed to toxic chemicals when they put toys in their
mouths. Lego, the Danish toymaker, quickly responded by reformulating its toy
factories to phase out the use of phthalates in production of its toys.
Since then, there has been steadily growing awareness of the dangers of
phthalates. Network news programs have discussed the dangers in toys, cosmetics
and beauty products, and even in fish that live in polluted waters. Despite all
this, the battle against phthalates has been a stalemate: The EU continues to
extend its temporary ban on toys for children aged 3 and under, but European
manufacturers are lobbying to institute a voluntary reporting system for all
other products similar to what is in place in the U.S.
Stacy Malkan of HCWH is urging people to distribute the lists of
phthalate-containing products far and wide, to discuss the topic of phthalates
in cosmetics and medical supplies with their health care provider, and to
contact the FDA to demand an industry-wide ban on phthalates in cosmetic
products. In addition, the groups releasing the report are preparing to launch a
national ad campaign.
As the report makes clear, non-toxic alternatives are readily available:
"The limited testing done for Not Too Pretty reveals that the same big
companies that produce phthalate-laced beauty products, also make similar
products without phthalates ... L'Oreal markets Jet Set nail polish without DBP
but puts the phthalate in its Maybelline brand."
Without public pressure, however, there will be no incentive for the $20
billion-a-year cosmetics industry to phase out all phthalates. And women who
continue to douse themselves in Christian Dior's Poison may be helping the
perfume live up to its name.
Matt Wheeland is an editorial intern at AlterNet.org.
and other beauty products
without harmful chemicals