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Cancer risk: Could beauty products have an ugly side?

Mercury News, September, 2005

It has become almost a sacred rite for a woman to temporarily turn the area around her bathroom sink into a toxic waste site in the name of beauty. Whether it's a home pedicure or a frost-and-tip job, we have resigned ourselves to the eye-watering fumes, stinging creams and instructions to ``apply with rubber gloves in a well-ventilated area.''

But a revolution is on the way. Finally, more of us are asking if all this beauty can be good for our health.

Risky chemicals?

As the rate of unexplained cancers creeps upward, there has been a growing sense of suspicion about the thousands of chemicals that have come into use over the past half-century. And since federal law doesn't force the cosmetics industry to do any product-safety testing, advocacy groups are calling for more investigation into possible long term risks of the daily beauty ritual.

California has led the way by proposing laws that seek to regulate and monitor the use of some chemicals, but, predictably, the cosmetics industry has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting them. Still, one bill was able to squeak through the Assembly with 41 votes and make it to the governor's desk this month.

SB 484, otherwise known as the California Safe Cosmetics Act, is only a modest beginning, but if it's signed into law it could be a step toward the kind of cosmetics regulation that has recently been adopted in Europe.

The bill, by Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would require cosmetics companies to notify the Department of Health Services about ingredients in their products that have been known to cause cancer or birth defects. The DHS could post a list on its Web site of products that contain these ingredients, and the agency would be authorized to investigate the health impact of the chemicals.

The law stops short of requiring warning labels on products, but it's still a sign of the changing times. It's a message to the industry that women are less willing to buy into the marketing of the ``science of beauty'' when there are still too many unanswered scientific questions about how it may affect their health in years to come.

Not much testing

Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco, which co-sponsored the bill, is among those who are not reassured by the industry's insistence that their products are safe. A report issued last year by the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group found that almost 90 percent of the more than 10,000 ingredients used in beauty products have not been tested by government regulators.

``What might we know about these chemicals 20 years from now?'' Brenner asked. ``We can't continue to pretend that as long as we don't know about any risks, we don't have a problem.''

It's fine for the cosmetics industry to dismiss these concerns as ``junk science'' and hysteria, but I think they're about to find out that attitude is not going to help them sell beauty products.

Brenner reports that some teenage girls in Marin County, which has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the country, want to meet with the governor so they can talk to him about SB 484 and their health concerns about chemicals in cosmetics.

That's right, teenagers. The marketers' mother lode. What are the odds that they will one day buy anti-aging creams if they worry that the ingredients may not be safe enough to let them grow old?

The days of the unquestioned beauty ritual are fading fast.

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