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What’s Getting Under Your Skin?

Learn the potentially harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal-care products


If the contents of a motion sickness patch or a nicotine patch can pass through your skin and get into your system, why couldn’t other chemicals do the same thing?
 
The answer is, some do. And that has raised worries about the ingredients in the moisturizers, sunscreens, shampoos, makeup and colognes that many of us use daily.
 
Some that are being scrutinized:
 

  • Triclosan, used in antibacterial soaps and deodorants, is a pesticide that can interfere with the thyroid and other hormone systems
  • Parabens, a class of preservatives, have been linked to increased breast cancer risk
  • Quaternium-15, another preservative, releases carcinogenic formaldehyde, a hazard through contact or inhalation

 
Toxic ingredients are allowed in consumer products at levels deemed safe by regulators. But some consumers and advocacy groups, including the Environmental Working Group and the Breast Cancer Fund, say that no level is safe. They argue that permissible limits don’t take into account the cumulative effects of exposure over time or the risks from chemicals classified as “persistent and bioaccumulative” that build up in your tissues.

(MORE: Cosmetic Labeling: Accuracy is Essential)
 
Assumption of Safety
 
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., sponsor of the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013, is particularly concerned.
 
“I think most consumers when they go to the store, regardless of what they’re buying, have this sense … that someone somewhere has made sure that this isn’t going to hurt them,” Schakowsky says. “That just really isn’t true, particularly when it comes to these personal care products.”
 
Schakowsky’s bill, which awaits a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more teeth in regulating the cosmetics industry. Among other things, it would authorize the FDA to prohibit certain ingredients outright and require clearer labeling.

(MORE: How to Read Anti-Aging Cosmetics Labels)
 
The FDA doesn’t routinely test products and, with the exception of coloring agents, doesn’t have the authority to approve or disapprove cosmetic products or ingredients as they go to market.
 
“Who is responsible for substantiating the safety of cosmetics?” the FDA asks in the FAQ area of its website. “Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics.”
 
Personal care products are a largely self-policing industry.
 
Consumers Push for Change
 
There are signs that the industry is changing, though.
 
Target and Wal-Mart have said they will require or incentivize suppliers to take toxins out of their products. Procter & Gamble promises to remove triclosan and phthalates (used in its fragrances) this year and Johnson & Johnson recently took quaternium-15 out of its No More Tears baby shampoo — citing consumer, not regulatory, pressure.
 
To help consumers know what to push for, California’s Department of Public Health launched a database searchable by company, brand, product name or even a category like “shampoo.” For any given product, the database shows the specific health risks associated with specific ingredients.
 
California is the most proactive state in addressing the health risks of cosmetic ingredients. The California Safe Cosmetics Act, which became law in 2005, requires manufacturers, packagers and distributors to register their products with the state if they contain any of ingredients known to be health hazards. The sale of those products isn’t prohibited and the Safe Cosmetics Program doesn’t address all potential health risks. The list of 857 ingredients is limited to those linked to cancer, birth defects or harm to the reproductive system.
 
But the program does “make information available to consumers and cosmetic industry workers so that they can make informed choices for themselves, their clients and their families.”
 
The Start of Restrictions
 
California’s approach is a good start, says John Bucher, associate director of the National Toxicology Program within the National Institutes of Health. Still, an ingredient-specific approach has limitations, he points out, because consumers use a whole product — not an ingredient in isolation.
 
“Products that are put together that comprise lots and lots of different chemicals — all tested independently — could [still] potentially cause problems in certain people,” he says.
 
Another problem, which his agency is examining, is that present-day testing methods might not be adequate to ensure safe cosmetics.
 
“Endocrine active chemicals that can have a wide variety of biological effects at very, very low doses generally don’t show up as being very dangerous in the standard toxicology batteries that we use,” Bucher says.
 
Safe Until Proven Otherwise
 
The real nut of the safety problem could be an approach that’s particular to the U.S., Bucher suggests. “The philosophy in the United States is that things are safe until proven not safe,” he says. “In the rest of the world, you have to prove that these [ingredients] are safe before you use them.”

(MORE: The Truth Behind Anti-Aging Marketing)
 
What You Should Do
 
Where does that leave you if you’re concerned about the known toxins in cosmetics and their partially unknown potential to do harm? The Breast Cancer Fund offers tips, such as these:
 
Avoid synthetic ingredients. Look out for chemical names rather than known substances like “aloe.”
 
Ditch the “fragrance.” That’s an umbrella term which can cover a profusion of chemicals, including hormone-disrupting pthalates.
 
Make your own personal care products. Online recipes or classes offered by community education programs or food coops will show you how.
 
Simplify your morning routine.  Using fewer products is the surest way to avoid unwanted ingredients.

Denise Logeland is a longtime business writer and editor whose beats have included the health care industry and financing for medical technology start-ups.

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