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Our Right to Know: Safe Cosmetics

This article was written by Erica Barnett in November 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

As someone who's used cosmetics since early adolescence (I'm from Texas, okay?), I'm particularly horrified by the awful stuff in ordinary makeup -- chemicals that cause infertility, birth defects, learning disabilities, and even cancer. (We've written before about the growing concerns around -- and awareness of -- the toxic substances that lurk in everyday household products.) I've long wished that someone would create a one-stop resource detailing what's safe, what's not, and why. That's why I'm eagerly awaiting my copy of Stacy Malkan's new book "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry."

Malkan, communications director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, explores the health risks that are inflicted on women by the beauty industry. In an interview with Alternet, Malkin explained her motivation for writing the book:

I think cosmetics is something that we're all intimately connected to. They're products that we use every day, and so I think it's a good first place to start asking questions. What kinds of products are we bringing into our homes? What kinds of companies are we giving our money to?
... I think of it as global poisoning. I think that the ubiquitous contamination of the human species with toxic chemicals is a symptom of the same problem (as global warming), which is an economy that's based on outdated technologies of petrochemicals -- petroleum. So many of the products we're applying to our faces and putting in our hair come from oil. They're byproducts of oil.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics got its start in 2002, when a coalition of women’s, public health, labor, environmental health and consumer-rights nonprofits got together and tested 72 beauty products for phthalates, chemicals that act as plasticizers and hormone disrupters and cause birth defects, particularly in males. They discovered the chemicals were nearly ubiquitous, although none of the products they tested listed phthalates on their labels. In fact, Malkan says, the typical American woman uses 12 products containing about 180 chemicals every single day. Nonetheless, the cosmetics industry remains virtually unregulated, with minimal oversight from the Food and Drug Administration, which must prove in court that a product is harmful before it can take any action.

In 2003, the European Union passed legislation outlawing the use of known carcinogens, mutagens, and teratogens in cosmetics--more than 1,000 chemicals in all. Their regulatory approach is similar to the "precautionary principle" -- the idea that t we should err on the side of caution when regulating products (or, more often, technologies) with potential for negative repercussions. In the US, only California has followed in the EU's footsteps. In her interview with Alternet, Malkan said the most surprising toxin her organization has discovered in cosmetics is lead in lipstick; last month, the Campaign issued a controversial report claiming to have found lead in nearly a dozen brand-name lipsticks.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics offers a guide to "safer" companies that have signed its Compact for Safe Cosmetics, pledging not to use chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects in their products. Skin Deep, a cosmetic database that's searchable by name, is another useful resource, while Teens for Safe Cosmetics offers not only resources but grassroots youth action to tackle the problem (like Operation Beauty Drop -- which places large bins in malls for teens to drop their unsafe cosmetics -- and a successful campaign to pass a California law requiring cosmetics manufacturers to notify the Department of Health Services about any toxic or carcinogenic components in their makeup).

Home page image credit: flickr/annia316

Dangerous Beauty: Taming Toxics in Everyday Cosmetics is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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