Launching a chemical reaction to cosmetics

Hartford Courant

Every day, we smear and spritz ourselves without a second thought. Eyes get rimmed in kohl liner, lips slicked in gloss. A dab of cologne on the neck, a dollop of body lotion on elbows and hands.

We do this without so much as a glance at the ingredients listed on the backs of bottles and tubes. Even if we did, who could make sense of the jumble of unpronounceable words branded in tiny print?

But one advocacy group has made that its mission, taking a hard look at the chemicals companies use in their cosmetic products and campaigning for tighter restrictions on ingredients they contend pose significant health concerns.

“Cosmetics are probably the least-regulated products in the realm of the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration],” says Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of environmental, health and consumer groups, launched about three years ago.

“We’re really getting doused with a lot of different chemicals -- hundreds of thousands of exposures to chemicals -- throughout the day.”


Of particular concern to the campaign are additives called phthalates, found in everyday products made of plastic and vinyl and used in cosmetics to make colors and fragrances last longer.

The group points to animal studies that suggest a link between high exposure levels to the chemical and incidents of cancer, birth defects and reproductive problems. But the cosmetics industry points to the same research and brands it as inconclusive, even sensationalist, saying there is not sufficient evidence that phthalate exposure -- especially the small traces found in beauty products -- poses a risk to humans.

An FDA spokeswoman says the agency agrees there is no compelling reason to ban the use of the chemicals, but that it continues to monitor new research.

But one of the coalition’s main concerns is what it sees as the FDA’s lack of muscle in regulating the $35-billion cosmetics industry.

Although the agency does have regulatory authority over health and beauty products, cosmetics -- unlike the food and drug products under FDA jurisdiction -- are not subject to agency approval before they hit store shelves. Some ingredients are restricted, but generally the cosmetics companies are responsible for ensuring the safety of their products.

“So it’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” Malkan says. “They say cosmetics manufacturers have to provide safe products, but there’s no definition of safe.”

Concern over the chemical was enough for the European Union to ban the use of two phthalates in health and beauty products last year. After first removing the chemicals from their overseas products to comply with the ruling, most major cosmetics companies eventually agreed to eliminate them from their U.S. products.

But the cosmetics safety campaign wants the FDA to do more. They’ve asked cosmetics manufacturers to sign its Compact for Safe Cosmetics, pledging to meet EU standards and exceed it by banning a menu of other ingredients the group deems worrisome. The campaign took out a full-page ad in USA Today in September urging consumers to tell Avon, L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble to join the compact.

More than 200 manufacturers have made the commitment so far, but those signatories are largely from smaller, organic companies that make up a small share of the booming industry.

Larger manufacturers, such as Estee Lauder and Revlon, say they stand by the safety of their products. They say they hold to EU standards and don’t see sufficient scientific cause to go further.

“Consumers can remain confident about using their cosmetics given their oversight by the FDA, the extensive research on their safety and long history of safety use,” reads a statement released earlier this year by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Assn., a trade group representing about 600 companies. It calls a recent study that linked phthalate exposure to reproductive defects in male babies “sensational ... completely speculative and scientifically unwarranted.”

Health and environmental groups have decided to take their fight to the state level.

In California, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first state law to regulate chemicals in cosmetics, the act requires manufacturers to disclose to the state any product ingredient that is on state or federal lists of chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects.

And in Massachusetts, the legislature is considering a bill on chemical safety that would require all companies, including cosmetics manufacturers, to eliminate the use of 10 chemicals deemed toxic and replace them with safer alternatives.

At the very least, Malkan urges consumers to educate themselves about the products they apply daily to their skin.

“I think we need to become political citizens,” she says, “to demand some change from our government, ask our elected officials about where they stand on the issue of chemicals and cosmetics and safety.”

To learn more about the ingredients in your health and beauty products, visit and click on the link for Skin Deep.