May 032006
Authors: Erin Skarda

When Becca Strait shops for cosmetics and personal care products, she looks for new items to try, taking into account prices and brand names.

“I’m a college student, so I’m not gonna buy the most expensive product. But I’m also not gonna buy the cheapest,” said Strait, a sophomore psychology major at CSU.

While she assumes these products are safe – after all, they are readily available to consumers – it never crossed her mind to look at the ingredients listed on the packages, some of which are known to be carcinogens, which are substances or agents that promote cancer.

“I am very surprised that nothing has been said about it,” Strait said upon learning these facts. “That’s really scary.”

Strait admits to using about 15 personal care and cosmetic products every day, from shampoo and conditioner, to face and body wash, to moisturizers and makeup.

Among these 15 products, Strait could be applying about 126 unique ingredients or more to her skin daily, according to a report titled “Skin Deep” by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. These chemicals, which are used in many personal care and cosmetics products, can be harmful to human health when used over time.

But Strait is not alone. Many consumers are unaware of these dangers because the cosmetics companies are not required to reveal this information on their products’ packaging, leaving questions as to which products are safe and which are not.


Unlike the European Union, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate ingredients found in personal care and cosmetics products. The Office of Cosmetics and Colors can only take action against a company if a product is misbranded or adulterated, meaning it is improperly or deceptively labeled, or contains substances that can cause injuries to consumers, according to the FDA’s Web site.

Unlike other products regulated by the FDA, such as drugs, food or biologics, cosmetics and personal care products, with the exception of color additives and nine prohibited chemicals, also are not subject to pre-market approval.

So who’s responsible for making sure the products are safe before they are sold?

The cosmetics firms that create, market and profit from their products.

The FDA Web site states: “In general, except for color additives and those ingredients which are prohibited or restricted from use in cosmetics by regulation, a manufacturer may use any ingredient in the formulation of a cosmetic provided that the ingredient and the finished cosmetic are safe, the product is properly labeled, and the use of the ingredient does not otherwise cause the cosmetic to be adulterated or misbranded under the laws that FDA enforces.”

But are these companies really doing their part to ensure the safety of their products?

Laura Just, EWG press secretary, said only 11 percent of the approximate 10,500 ingredients used in these products have been assessed for safety by the Cosmetics Ingredients Review, the industry’s self-policing panel.

“This is one of our main concerns because that means there aren’t standardized risk assessments that companies use to make sure each product consumers are exposed to are safe,” Just said.

For this reason, the EWG compiled an electronic database of 14,400 name-brand products with almost 7,000 ingredients and cross-linked it with 37 toxicity databases to determine which products contain ingredients that potentially are damaging to health, such as mercury, formaldehyde, sodium laurel sulfate, parabens and phthalates, among many others.

The group found that more than one-third of these products contain at least one ingredient linked to cancer, and 79 percent contain ingredients that may contain harmful impurities like known human carcinogens. These impurities are legal and unrestricted in the industry.

But despite the group’s findings, the FDA still doesn’t regulate these products. According to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the FDA is supposed to require companies whose product safety is unknown to label it: “Warning – the safety of this product has not been determined.”

However, not many of these products carry such a label.

Products without these labels technically could fall under “misbranding,” but in a response to the Environmental Working Group on Sept. 29, 2005, the FDA replied that it can’t take action against these companies because it lacks the information to determine whether or not the ingredients were adequately tested for safety. And since there are no guidelines for what is considered “safe” in the cosmetics industry, the FDA can’t require companies to review their products’ ingredients, leaving safety voluntary and discretionary.


Despite the many personal care and cosmetics products on the market that use these ingredients, consumers can find natural and safer alternatives.

Jackie Fields, a medical doctor board certified in family and holistic medicine, has done extensive research on the adverse effects of these ingredients and created her own natural skincare line, Dr. Fields’ Sacred Skin, as an alternative for her patients.

“Being in the field of health, I wanted to find something that was going to be healthy for my patients,” said Fields, who founded the Healing Gardens Health Center in Fort Collins. “Looking around at most skin care lines, there’s a tremendous amount of chemicals, and the focus of my practice is to educate people. In truth what I really said is, ‘I can do better.'”

Fields got involved with Safe Cosmetics, a coalition committed to pushing companies to make safer products, and voluntarily registered her line in accordance with the organization’s Compact for Safe Cosmetics, promising not to use these chemicals in her products. As of April 13, more than 300 cosmetic companies had signed the compact, according to the organization’s Web site.

“It didn’t take a lot of research to realize there are more than 100,000 chemicals used in the cosmetics world, many of those are known to be carcinogens, and I really wanted to create something that didn’t use any of those and take, basically, a business oath,” Fields said.

Fields believes that cosmetics and personal care products are not regulated because, until recently, there was a misconception that since they are used transdermally (outside the skin), they could not be harmful internally.

“That is so not true, and we know better,” Fields refuted. “Basically your skin is your largest organ, and your absorption (of these products) can be up to 60 to 70 percent. I, as a physician, use medications all the time transdermally, so I know how good that absorption is.”

With the average woman using about 10 to 12 products every day since teenage years or earlier, these chemicals add up, Fields said, noting a study of cord blood from newborn infants in which 270 of these ingredients were found.

“Of course it brought the issue up of, wow, anything somebody puts on their skin should be considered as a possibility to be absorbed and problematic.”

But even for the informed, label-conscious consumer, Fields said certain loopholes make these ingredients almost impossible to avoid. There’s a trade secret, she said, that allows companies to conceal ingredients under the term “fragrance.”

“They can hide it. There’s a loophole in the cosmetic world that they can hide it, just list it as fragrance, so even if someone was intentionally trying to avoid (these ingredients), it might be difficult to do.”

While many consumers are unaware that some ingredients in products they use every day are unregulated and can potentially cause adverse health effects, Fields said this knowledge is becoming more widespread, similar to the organic food movement. And with increasing consumer demand for safer products, businesses will have no choice but to comply.

“I really think the best thing (consumers) can do is start becoming aware of what they don’t want to see in their products,” Fields said. “And ideally, the more aware, the more demand the public will make, and then the more companies that are going to do this. This is exactly what happened with (organic) food.”

“It’s really the public that will change the corporate behavior. I really think that’s effective but then that takes a lot of education, and it’s slow to go. It takes a long time for people to get this info and realize, wow, I need to act on it.”

Erin Skarda can be reached at


To become informed on how your products measure up, go to the report “Skin Deep” at

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