With no safety framework and little government oversight, the cosmetics industry is operating in a virtual Wild West. And the West has gotten wilder still.
As if there weren’t enough concerns about the toxicity of cosmetic chemicals, manufacturers are rushing to incorporate nanotechnology that uses particles 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanotechnology has been touted as the next revolution in cosmetics and packaging. However nanoparticles, being so tiny, have the potential to penetrate unusually deeply into the skin and organs, causing exotic physical effects.
Animal studies show that some nanoparticles can penetrate cells and tissues, move through the body and brain and cause biochemical damage. As one example, carbon fullerenes – also called buckyballs, and currently being used in some moisturizers – can cause brain damage in fish, and even low levels of exposure can be toxic to human liver cells. The health impacts of nanomaterials in cosmetics and sunscreens remain largely unknown, pending completion of long-range studies that have only recently begun. But that’s not stopping the cosmetics industry from leading the charge to incorporate the inadequately tested technology into products we put on our faces and in our hair.
“In one of the most dramatic failures of regulation since the introduction of asbestos, corporations around the world are rapidly introducing thousands of tons of nanomaterials into the environment and onto the faces and hands of hundreds of millions of people, despite the growing body of evidence indicating that nanomaterials can be toxic for humans and the environment,” said a May 2006 report by Friends of the Earth. The group filed the first-ever legal challenge on the potential health impacts of nanotechnology in a 2006 petition to FDA, demanding that the agency monitor and regulate nano-particles in cosmetics.
Hundreds of personal care products already contain nano-sized ingredients and thousands more contain ingredients that are available in nano form but don’t include information about particle size on the labels, according to a Skin Deep analysis. Since nano-sized ingredients are absorbed differently into the body, they require separate safety studies. But as Jane Houlihan noted, “Manufacturers seem to be following the pattern they established with conventional chemical ingredients – put poorly tested chemicals into personal care products and do the science later, if at all.”
The by-now familiar debate about cosmetics safety played out in the press coverage of the Friends of the Earth petition, as illustrated in a San Francisco Chronicle story. “I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” Dr. John Bailey from the cosmetics industry trade association told the Chronicle. “All of the safety questions have been answered…” he said. FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan said the agency has no evidence that nanoparticles in products pose hazards. Revlon and L’Oréal did not respond to the reporter’s calls seeking comment. Estée Lauder spokeswoman Janet Bartucci said the company would review the Friends of the Earth report, and gave assurances that “… consumer safety has always been a top priority at the Estée Lauder Companies.” Lisa Archer from Friends of the Earth said she thinks corporations should “… stop treating their customers like guinea pigs” by putting nano-particles into personal care products before the materials are proven safe.
In the absence of federal regulations, some cities are trying to get a handle on the situation. Berkeley, California, became the first city to regulate nanotechnology in December 2006 and other cities may follow suit. Under the Berkeley law, companies and research labs that make or use nanoparticles must disclose that fact to the city government, and provide information about known health or safety risks.
What Should I Buy?
“Just tell me which ingredients to avoid.” It’s the most common reaction people have upon hearing about the toxic cosmetic problem. Naturally, everyone wants the quick fix, the easy shopping list. But unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. “The list of chemicals we know are toxic or contaminated is already too long for anyone to do an easy label check at the store,” according to Alex Gorman, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth. “And there are so many that should be on the list purely because we don’t know anything about them. I wish I had more advice on this because I’ve struggled with it before and have never come up with a satisfying answer for folks asking the question.” The ultimate answer, she said, is changing the law to require cosmetics companies to use the safest ingredients possible.
Until then, consumers can make more educated choices by using the Skin Deep database [www.cosmeticdatabase.com] and many are. The database gets about one million product searches per month. With its 2007 update, Skin Deep now offers brand-by-brand comparisons of more than 30,000 products, about one third of the market. “It’s been such a great tool,” Jane Houlihan said. “People use it to shop. Companies are using it to reformulate.” She never could have guessed… that her database would be such a lightening rod, nor did she know it would be a never-ending project.
“We’ll be updating it every year,” Jane said, “… always pulling the latest toxicity databases, always adding more products.” The staff at EWG – now including a chemist and medical doctor – continue to plug in new information, guided by a simple vision that is not so simple to carry out in the real world: “I want to walk into any store, anywhere and buy any product without having to worry if it’s safe for my wife and kids,” said staffer Sean Gray.
Getting there will take more than a database. Skin Deep is “… the beginnings of something empowering,” said EWG staffer Hema Subramanian. “But how impossible is it for a mom with three kids on her arm to try to look everything up on a database and remember ingredients in the store? How do you make good choices without enough information out there?” Her experience with Skin Deep has made her a true believer in the need to reform government policies. “This is too overwhelming for a staff of five in a nonprofit with a $3 million budget,” she said. “There’s too much responsibility placed outside of government. Companies need to be required to do more work on the front end to make products safer.”
Skin Deeper Still
How many personal care products did you use this morning? Shampoo, deodorant, lotion, makeup – the average woman uses a dozen personal care products containing 168 chemical ingredients every day. Men use about six products a day containing 85 chemicals. We absorb, inhale and ingest many of these chemicals into our bodies.
Nanoemulsions in shampoo encapsulate active ingredients and carry them deeper into hair shafts.
Nanosomes of Pro-Retinol A penetrate the skin’s surface to soften wrinkles and reduce the appearance of fine neck creases.
Nanovectors transport and concentrate active ingredients in the skin.
Excerpted from Not Just a Pretty Face: the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry Copyright © 2007 by Stacy Malkin, New Society Publishers. Stacy Malkin is communications director of Health Care Without Harm and cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, www.safecosmetics.org