Apparently, Looks Might Kill

Why are American consumers being forced to choose between beauty and health?

| March / April 2005

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WITH ALL THE thought we put into what goes in our bodies, it's amazing how little most of us think about what goes on our bodies -- the lotions we rub into chapped skin, the deodorants we swipe under our arms, the lipsticks and blushes we use to brighten our faces. Unfortunately, says Charlotte Brody, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, even if we did investigate what's in the myriad personal care products and cosmetics at our local drugstores, we wouldn't turn up very much information.

'If you asked Utne readers and everybody else in this country 'What happens before these things go on the shelves of the stores?' most people would say that there must be some review process. Cosmetic companies must have to send their formulas and safety studies somewhere,' says Brody, whose organization is a founding member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a coalition of U.S. health, environmental, and women's groups.

In fact, they don't. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the cosmetics industry, nor does any other governmental body. Instead, in a case of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse, the job of regulating the thousands of chemicals that are used to preserve, dye, and emulsify most of the personal care products and cosmetics on the market -- the very same chemicals, by the way, that are used in industrial manufacturing to soften plastics, clean equipment, and stabilize pesticides -- falls to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, the industry's voluntary oversight committee.

Additionally, thanks to a major loophole in the federal law regarding chemicals, only chemicals developed after 1976 require health and safety testing (and minimally at that), which allows the cosmetics industry to put untold amounts of chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive harm (and found lodged in human breast and fat tissue, as well as breast milk) into our shampoos, shaving creams, and hair sprays. As a result, says Brody, we have adequate safety and health data for only about 10 to 12 percent of the chemicals we're exposed to daily.

A heartening trend in Europe, however, is giving consumer activists like Brody some hope. The European Union (EU) recently passed a law banning the use of suspected CMRs -- carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and mutagens -- in any cosmetics or personal care products sold in the 25 EU member countries. Not wanting to miss out on the lucrative European market, all of the major multinational cosmetics companies have since reformulated their products. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Astonishingly, instead of making the safer formulations available globally, these companies are still peddling the old lotions, nail polishes, and lipsticks that are loaded with CMRs here in the United States and elsewhere. After all, our government doesn't require the safer formulas, and the chemicals industry is only too happy to maintain the status quo.

'The American Chemistry Council is balking at anybody looking for safer ingredients because it means they'll have less business,' says Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund, another founding member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

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