Nurses spend a large portion of their day protecting themselves from worksite hazards by hand washing; wearing gloves, goggles and masks; and moving away from X-ray machines. But according to a new book outlining the hazards of personal care products, they might be exposing themselves to toxins even before they leave their homes.
The average man uses six personal care products and the average woman uses 12 personal care products daily, according to Stacy Malkan, author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” Many of these cosmetics and other products contain chemicals that can be harmful to those who use them, as well as to those they come in contact with.
Malkan was a guest speaker at the 10th anniversary celebration for the Philadelphia-based Women’s Health and Environmental Network (WHEN), held last fall at Thomas Jefferson University.
High levels of phthalates
Concern about phthalates — a set of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects and reproductive problems — raised Malkan’s awareness about the use of these substances in personal care products. “The Centers for Disease Control reported that women of childbearing age had higher levels of phthalates in their bodies,” says Malkan, who is also the communications director for Health Care Without Harm and cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
She and a group of health and environmental activists looked at personal care products as a potential source of phthalates. “In July 2002, we reported that more than 70% of personal care products tested at a lab contained phthalates,” Malkan says.
Her book tells the story of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and its five-year effort to pressure the U.S. cosmetics industry to use safer ingredients. Malkan shares what she learned along the way about the science and politics of chemicals, as well as stories about the activists, scientists and entrepreneurs working for a healthier future.
Nail polish victory
Malkan refers to nail polish to underscore a major victory of the campaign. Most major companies (including OPI, a major brand used in nail salons) have reformulated their nail polish to remove what Malkan calls the “toxic trio” of ingredients — formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate and toluene.
“This is especially important for salon workers who are exposed to these products day in and day out,” she says. “The victory proves that the companies can and will change when consumers demand it.”
But the mainstream beauty industry has been resistant to change. “The largest companies continue to use small amounts of multiple toxic chemicals in their products,” Malkan says, “and they don’t consider the long-term health effects of aggregate, chronic toxic exposures.”
But many companies are in league with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, says Mia Davis, the campaign’s national grass roots coordinator. More than 600 companies have signed the “Compact for Safe Cosmetics” in support of the production of nontoxic beauty items. (See the campaign’s website at www.safecosmetics.org.)
Davis has been committed to environmental issues since college. As an undergraduate, she worked on brownfields redevelopment — cleaning up blighted land in urban communities in Massachusetts.
“I became really interested in reducing our exposure to toxins this way and started thinking about toxins in consumer products,” Davis says. “I wondered how toxins in products might be adding to the exposures we already get from the air, food and water.”
Lack of regulation
Davis is concerned about the lack of regulation related to the production of personal care products. “Cosmetics — including lotions, shampoo, bubble bath, aftershave and makeup — are all sources of exposure since none of the products are tested or regulated by the U.S. government, and the personal care products industry is entirely self-regulated,” she says. “Only 11% of the 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products have available safety data, and those chemicals aren’t even tested for long-term effects, or in combination with other chemicals.”
Shifting the market demand for safer ingredients in personal care products is as important as legislation that empowers the FDA to punish companies that use carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins, Davis says.
Safety on the shelves
“Cosmetics, like toys and drugs and food, need to be proven safe for customers and the environment before they hit the store shelves,” she says. If steps aren’t taken, she says, increased incidence of cancer, diabetes, miscarriages and behavioral problems are likely to be the result.
The long-term goal, Malkan says, is to have companies that manufacture beauty products take the lead in producing healthier, less toxic personal care items.
“I want these companies to stop buying toxic chemicals from the chemical companies and to drive innovation toward safer, healthier, better-designed products,” she says. “In the future, all products on the shelves should be safe for children, safe for pregnant women, safe for workers, communities and the planet.”