Lipstick, Shampoo, Nail Polish - How Toxic is OK?

Innocent until proven guilty is a great policy when it comes to the law but when it comes to my personal health I'd much rather that unsafe chemicals don't make it into my lipstick even if they are not currently deemed dangerous. Yet, precisely that is happening.

Charged with protecting American citizens, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for overseeing the safety of cosmetics, soaps, deodorants, shampoos, fragrances and other personal-care products. However, unlike the medicines regulated by the FDA, these items are not reviewed by the agency before going to market. Self-regulation puts the onus on the manufacturer and consumer to ensure product safety. Consumers are being asked to carefully read ingredient lists and evaluate if they want Sodium Lauroamohoacetate and Dibutyl Phthalate in their shampoo or nail polish prior to purchasing. Industry officials say the system works well and that there's no cause for alarm. "The proof is in the marketplace," said John Bailey, former director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors. "FDA gets very few consumer complaints about cosmetic products." Perhaps because consumer's didn't know they were supposed to be keeping track.

"The amount of absorption of cosmetics either through the skin or ingested from lipsticks is small, and thus the laws as written have been sufficient to ensure safety," said Linda Katz, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, in an e-mail to Lisa Stiffler reporter for the publication Seattle PI. "If a safety issue arises, FDA does have the ability through enforcement to ensure that unsafe products are removed from the market."

The EPA recently concluded that Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), a phthalate used in nail polish and some other consumer products, is safer than originally thought. Bailey comments on phthalates saying: "In the (United States), the use of phthalates was well below any level of concern. The phasing out is a marketing decision, not a safety decision."

My hunch, however, is that most consumers out there would much prefer no dangerous chemicals in their deodorant than a less than dangerous dose. What if energies went toward researching alternative non-toxic manufacturing methods instead of debating how much is "safe."

Indeed, some claim that certain chemicals known to cause cancer in humans simply should not be in our products to begin with. In fact, the European Union has banned more than 1,000 ingredients considered unsafe for use in cosmetics to date. The FDA on the other hand, has banned only nine. Luckily for consumers, many multi-national companies servicing multiple markets abide by the most stringent standards. But not all.

In California lawmakers adopted the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 which requires cosmetic manufacturers to submit an ingredient list detailing the use of chemicals used in their products that are known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. "Washington has a program for reducing exposure to select hazardous chemicals, but nothing specific to safeguards for cosmetics."

Some companies are on your side so keep your eyes open. An excellent example of Industry self-regulation is Wal-Mart's recent move to incentivize suppliers to phase out toxic chemicals from products. Recently the company announced that suppliers who conform to the phase out plan will receive preferential status. Other corporate behemoths, such as Pfizer, are implementing similar schemes. Voting with your dollar by patronizing a local health food store or Whole Foods Whole Body is not a foolproof system but is certainly one way to screen it you have health concerns. Many safe alternatives exist

In the end it's hard to say when we'll see an end to toxic chemicals proliferating in our everyday lives and who will be responsible for making that happen. But one thing I can say is that things can only get better.

:: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Tags: Chemicals | Cosmetics