What’s in Your Personal Care Products? Wouldn’t You Like to Know?
By Vida Rostami
Even if you don't intend to eat a tube of lipstick this weekend, you might like to know whether the ingredients in your favorite Coral Crunch or Plum-Tastic are safe, right? If you're spreading lead on your lips every day, for example, you might want to know about it. But, cosmetic manufacturers think concerns about chemicals in personal care products — like make-up, deodorant, or even baby shampoo — are a joke. They’re not required to test the chemicals used in personal care products for safety, and they don't think they should have to.
On February 9, 2011, the Society for Women’s Health Research and the Personal Care Products Council hosted a briefing entitled: “The Science of Cosmetics.” The briefing covered topics including the safety testing process for cosmetics; the role of the industry’s Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) in the process; and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) product oversight responsibility.
The NWHN was interested in this briefing because we’re concerned about product safety and, specifically, lead content. At the briefing, this issue was presented in a mocking way that minimized concerns about lead content in lipstick. John E. Bailey, the Personal Care Products Council’s Chief Scientist, spoke briefly about lead during his presentation, “Putting Safety in Perspective.” He described lead as: “a natural part of the environment, found in the air we breathe, water we drink, and in the soil where food is grown.” Bailey also stated that “You would need to eat two tubes of lipstick every day for 73 years to approach a dangerous level” — at which point, audience members broke out in laughter.
The Truth about Product Safety
In fact, Bailey’s characterization of lead is highly misleading and presumes that, unless ingested at extremely high levels, lead is safe to consume. This is simply false. Recent scientific evidence indicates that there is no safe level of lead exposure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states: “No safe blood level has been identified.”1 The CDC suggests avoiding all sources of lead exposure, including lead-containing cosmetics. The Connecticut Coalition for Environ-mental Justice has noted: “Lead builds up in the body over time and lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure level. The latest studies show there is no safe level of lead exposure.”2
In fact, recent studies have indicated that even at very low levels of exposure, this environmental toxin can have detrimental effects. A 2008 study exploring the effects of lead exposure on children’s neuro-development concluded that even the current “low” levels of exposure cause children to experience neuro-development deficits.3 Lead exposure is especially dangerous for pregnant women and has been linked to infertility and miscarriage.4
Lead has also been linked to breast cancer and chronic, low-level lead exposure accelerates tumors’ growth rates. A 2010 study conducted in Nigeria found that blood and hair samples from newly - diagnosed breast cancer patients contained higher levels of lead than those from women who did not have breast cancer. Furthermore, the samples’ lead levels were directly correlated with the size of the patients’ tumors. The study concluded that public health programs that aim to lower breast cancer risk must include measures to effectively protect women from exposure to lead and other industrial metals.5
What does this have to do with lipstick? In 2009, an FDA study on lipstick’s lead content found lead levels to be much higher than previously reported. The lipstick lead levels ranged from 0.09 — 3.06 parts per million (ppm), with an average lead level of 1.07 ppm. For context, that’s more than ten times higher than the FDA’s maximum allowable level of lead content for candy (0.1 ppm). The FDA established the candy limit to protect children from lead exposure; there is now a corresponding advocacy campaign to require cosmetics’ manufacturers to reduce the lead found in lipstick as much as possible.
Industry Benefit Trumps Women’s Health
You’d think the cosmetics industry would be invested in not harming their consumers, but it seems to value profit over women’s health. Not surprisingly, both briefing sponsors, the Society for Wo-men’s Health Research and the Personal Care Products Council, are heavily connected to industry manufacturers.
The Society for Women’s Health Research is a national non-profit organization that conducts research on sex differences. It states its aim as being to improve women’s health through advocacy, education and research. One of its stated goals is to “inform women about health conditions and treatments that are unique to women and on how women’s health differs from men’s.”6 The Society for Women’s Health Research receives a great deal of funding from pharmaceutical and other corporate sponsors.
The Personal Care Products Council describes itself as “a leading and trusted source of information for and about the industry and a vocal advocate for consumer safety and continued access to new, innovative products.”7 The Council has over 600 member companies and claims to be the voice on scientific, legal, regul-atory, legislative, and international issues for the personal care product industry. Members include major cosmetic com-panies, including L’Oreal, Proctor and Gamble, Mary Kay, and Johnson & Johnson. In the first quarter of 2011, the Council spent $170,000 on lobbying the Federal government, a 21% increase from the same period last year.8
It’s no surprise that, in 2008, major companies such as Estee Lauder, Revlon, and Johnson & Johnson successfully lobbied to kill SB 1712, which would have regulated and reduced the amount of lead that could be in lipstick.9 It is also no surprise that all three companies are members of the Personal Care Products Council.
As our members know, the Network has always been wary of industry sponsorship and support. If a group gets millions of dollars from an industry or company, it is possible (and likely) for the group’s advocacy or educational efforts to be influenced by that financial support. True patient advocacy groups do not allow the industry being monitored to compromise the organization’s integrity, nor do they allow industry representative on their board of directors.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is an example of a coalition that truly does have women’s best interests at heart. The Campaign was launched in 2004 to: “protect the health of consumers and workers by securing the corporate, regulatory and legislative reforms necessary to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetic and personal care products.”10 The Campaign is a coalition effort to protect the health of consumers and workers that seeks corporate, regulatory, and legislative reforms to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products. Coalition members include the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow (represented by Clean Water Action and Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition), Commonweal, the Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, and Women’s Voices for the Earth. The Breast Cancer Fund, a national organization that focuses on preventing breast cancer by eliminating environmental links to the disease, is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ national coordinator.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recognizes that, because lead is a contaminant that is not listed on lipstick ingredients labels, it’s next to impossible for consumers to avoid. To help, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers an on-line database called Skin Deep that provides information on cosmetic products’ toxicity levels. To get this information, EWG staff scientists compare ingredients in personal care product labels and websites to information in nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases. As the world’s largest personal care product safety guide, Skin Deep provides consumers with easy-to-navigate safety ratings for a wide range of products and ingredients.11 (See http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/site/about.php.)
In addition, the Campaign recommends that consumers take action and get involved. Email, call or write the companies that make your favorite shades of lipstick and tell them that lead-free products are important to you. Consumers can also certainly help increase awareness by spreading the word about this issue.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Personal Care Products Council seem to have similar goals, according to their public materials. Yet, the two are worlds apart in how they view women and women’s health. As always, the Network advises women to pay attention to advocacy and lobbying group’s connections with industry when deciding whether it is a trusted source of information.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead,” Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010. Retrieved on June 29, 2011 from http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips/water.htm.
3. Bellinger DC, “Very Low Lead Exposure and Children’s Neurodevelopment,” Current Opinion in Pediatrics 2008; 2 (20): 172-177.
4. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “New Product Tests Find Lead in Lipstick”, San Francisco, CA: Safe Cosmetics Action Network, 2007. Retrieved on June 29, 2011 from http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=59.
5. Alatise OI, Schrauzer GN, “Lead Exposure: A Contributing Cause of the Current Breast Cancer Epidemic in Nigerian Women,” Biological Trace Element Research; 136 (2): 127-139.
6. Society for Women’s Health Research, “About Us,” Washington, DC: Society for Women’s Health Research, 2010. Retrieved on July 31, 2011 from http://www.womenshealthresearch.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_main.
7. Personal Care Products Council, “About Us,” Washington, DC: Personal Care Products Council, 2010. Retrieved on June 29, 2011 from http://www.ctfa.org/about-us/about-personal-care-products-council.
9. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “Beauty Industry Lobbies to Keep Lead in Lipstick”, San Francisco, CA: Safe Cosmetics Action Network, 2008. Retrieved on June 29, 2011 from http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=249.
10. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “About Us,” San Francisco, CA: Safe Cosmetics Action Network, 2011. Retrieved on June 29, 2011 from http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?list=type&type=34.
11. EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, “About Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep”, Washington, DC: Environment Working Group, 2008. Retrieved on July 10, 2011 from http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/site/about.php
Vida Rostami was an NWHN intern during Spring 2011 and is currently a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin.