By Maeda Riaz • February 16, 2012•Writers in Residence
There are so many buzzwords nowadays in commercials and print ads touting products that are “sulfate-free” “paraben-free” or “phthalate-free.” Great, I was wondering when they were going to take out those ingredients I never knew existed in the first place! What do those words even mean? And why should we care? Perhaps it’s all a marketing scheme to get us to buy more products. And doesn’t the government regulate cosmetics anyways? If a product is sold in stores, can’t we assume it’s safe?
Why You Should Care
Think about all the personal care products you use on a daily basis. Here’s my personal list: facial wash, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, SPF moisturizer, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, concealer, mineral foundation, blush, powder, body lotion and deodorant. That comes to a grand total of 14 products! The average consumer uses between 15 to 25 products a day.[i] Considering the multitude of ingredients in each product, people apply an average of 126 different ingredients to their skin daily. The skin is our body’s largest organ, and is highly permeable. When you eat something it goes through your body and the liver uses enzymes to process toxins, but when you apply a topical cosmetic to your skin, it bypasses the liver and gets absorbed directly into the bloodstream.[ii] If we’re going to put these products all over our face and bodies, isn’t it time we consider exactly what’s in them?
The FDA is hands-off
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), under whose regulatory authority personal care products such as cosmetics fall, takes a hands-off approach when it comes to regulating this industry. It does not test the safety of products before they are put on the market. In fact, the FDA states that, “[c]osmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.”
Nor does it require cosmetics companies to do safety testing. The FDA states that it, “strongly urges cosmetic manufacturers to conduct whatever toxicological or other tests are appropriate to substantiate the safety of their cosmetics.” “Strongly urges”? How reassuring! The reality is that most ingredients used in cosmetics have not been tested for safety. According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer watchdog organization, just 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products have been reviewed for safety.
The cosmetic industry wields the power
The Personal Care Products Council, (PCPC) is the leading trade association group that represents more than 600 members in the personal care and cosmetics industry. The cosmetics industry is basically self-regulating. This powerful group has lobbied against proposed regulations on cosmetics.[iii] Last year the PCPC lobbied against The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, which would have strengthened federal cosmetics laws and consumer protections.
It also funds the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the main panel that assesses safety of cosmetics ingredients. Like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics says, isn’t it a little like the fox guarding the henhouse?
Most cosmetics have harmful ingredients in them
Let’s go back to those sulfates, parabens and phthalates mentioned earlier. Sulfates are foaming agents and detergents often used in shampoos that the Environmental Working Group considers to be a carcinogen.[iv] Parabens are preservatives used to keep cosmetics from spoiling and have been found in breast cancer tumors, possibly spread through the use of deodorants. And phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals often found in perfumes and nail polishes. Even if a product is free of these ingredients, consumers should still be aware that they may contain other potentially harmful ingredients.
One of the worst culprits is fragrance. Ever notice how someone’s bad cologne or perfume lingers in an elevator? It’s not the natural scent of flowers that are lingering in the air – it’s most likely a cocktail of synthetic chemicals. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know this by looking at the label. Here’s bit of legal trivia: how do companies get away with not listing all the ingredients their products contain even though required to do so by law? They hide behind trade secret laws! If a product contains fragrance, it’s probably made up of hundreds of synthetic chemicals, but companies are not required to list them because fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets.
The European Union recognizes dangers we ignore
The European Union (EU) adopts a more stringent attitude towards cosmetics regulations than the United States. Here, the attitude is buyer beware. The FDA can’t recall a harmful personal care product unless it proves in court that the product is misbranded or adulterated.[v] Doesn’t it seem backwards that the manufacturer doesn’t have to prove a product is safe before it’s sold? In the EU, they use the precautionary principle, which is a better-safe-than-sorry approach. It’s based on the idea that harm to consumers need not be established with “full scientific certainty” before corrective action is taken.[vi] The EU has banned more than one thousand ingredients for use in personal care products, whereas the United States has banned nine.[vii]
What You Can Do
Read labels and avoid the worst ingredients
We’ve become increasingly conscious of reading food labels and try to stay away from preservatives and additives in our food. Shouldn’t we also consider reading the labels on our skincare products? Just for kicks, pick up a lotion or cosmetic you have sitting in your bathroom and look at the ingredients list. Now check some of them against the Skin Deep Database, which allows you to search safety information by company or ingredient. Another good resource is A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, which helps decipher what all those impossibly long chemical names actually mean. Sophie Uliano, author of Gorgeously Green, also has a great “cheat sheet” you can download and take with you when you go shopping that lists ingredients to avoid. Jean Seo, skincare expert and owner of Evolue in Los Angeles urges people to stay away from the ‘dirty dozen’ list of chemicals.
Many of us I suspect are sometimes suckers for beautiful packaging. It somehow makes us think the product inside works as well as it looks on the outside. And if the label says, Natural, All-Natural, Organic, Hypoallergenic, or Nontoxic, even better! Keep in mind, however, that these labels are misleading and meaningless because there is no legal standard defining what these terms mean. Companies can basically slap these ‘greenwashing’ labels on anything. According to Ms. Seo greenwashing occurs when companies use the words ‘green,’ ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘chemical-free’ loosely to label their products and make them more marketable when in reality they are not green, natural, organic, or chemical-free. She believes the “vagueness and hype of greenwashing is done on purpose to confuse people so it is almost impossible for them to make intelligent ‘green’ decisions in their lives.”
Buy from a trusted company and look for third-party certified products
Consider products from companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, where they “pledge to formulate products that do not use ingredients that are known or suspected to cause certain adverse health effects, such as those associated with an elevated risk of cancer.”
Well, what if you don’t want to read labels? It certainly takes additional effort and can sometimes make your head spin. In that case, consider products with the following labels:
- USDA Organic: contains 95 percent certified organic ingredients
- Made With Organic: contains at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients
- NPA: National Products Association
Don’t let certification bog you down though. It’s certainly possible to find natural products out there that don’t have these labels but are still made without toxic ingredients. Many of us try to cut down on eating foods with lots of preservatives and chemicals, so maybe it’s time we cut down on skincare products with lots of preservatives and chemicals and opt for products with fewer ingredients. As Ms. Seo points out, “many natural cosmetics and skincare products work better than conventional products because naturally our skin can absorb natural ingredients better.”
Take care of yourself from the inside out
Hopefully this information doesn’t scare you into wanting to toss all your products in the trash! Keep your tried and true favorites if you’re not ready to part with them, but consider replacing some of your ‘dirtiest’ products. Even if you replace one or two of your products you can still significantly reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals. Ms. Seo gives some sound advice that we should all follow: drink plenty of spring or mineral water, try to buy non-genetically modified food whenever you can, stress less and do whatever it takes to get a good night’s sleep.
[i] Beth Greer, Super Natural Home, 70 (Rodale 2009).
[ii] Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, with Randall Fitzgerald, Healthy Beauty, 17-18, 32 (Benbella Books 2011).
[iii] Siobhan O’Connor & Alexandra Spunt, No More Dirty Looks, 26 (Da Capo Lifelong Books 2010).
[iv] Sophie Uliano, Gorgeously Green, 25 (Harper Collins 2008).
[v] Supra note 2, at 66.
[vi] Id. at 30.
[vii] Supra note 3, at 17.