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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
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
‘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.
Hoping to piggyback on the new EU law, CSC has mailed a compact
to 250 cosmetics companies asking them to make their reformulated
products available globally. As of press time, CSC had some success
with smaller, organic companies, but none of the large or
conventional cosmetics companies had signed on. (For a complete
list of the cosmetics companies that have pledged to reformulate
Looking toward the long term, the compact also asks each company
to study other potentially toxic chemicals in its personal care
products. This provision is modeled on another, more far-reaching
European initiative called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and
Authorization of Chemicals), which has not yet passed into law.
REACH is based on the precautionary principle — that is, products
should be proven harmless before they are turned loose in
the world. This ethos stands in stark contrast to the
after-the-fact Band-Aid approach frequently favored by the U.S.
government (think Vioxx).
The Bush administration, in concert with chemical industry
interests, is lobbying hard against REACH, arguing that it will
stifle innovation and impose excessive costs on industry.
Nonetheless, CSC and other consumer advocates are pushing back
toward not only the immediate goal of safer cosmetics, but also the
larger fight to reform U.S. chemicals policy.
The old way to think about chemicals, Brody recently told
Common Ground (Dec. 2004), was: ‘ ‘How much of one
chemical will give a 50-year-old male worker cancer?’ And as long
as we all were exposed to less than that amount, we were supposed
to be safe.’ Instead, Brody says, we should aim for an
environmental health policy that places at its center motherhood
and the right of children to be born without chemical
contamination, whether from the food we eat, the air we breathe, or
the products we use.
‘What we need to be aiming for is how do we create a society
that encourages the birth of healthy children,’ Brody told
Common Ground. ‘Women of childbearing age — not just
pregnant women — are the canaries in the mine. A world that’s safe
for young women will also be safe for men and frogs and coral.’
Anjula Razdan is a senior editor of Utne.