Beauty to die for: health hazards of cosmetics
and skin care products revealed
by Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.
Your medicine cabinet is one of the most dangerous areas of your
house, and not for the reasons you may think. Lurking just behind
your bathroom mirror, where all of your favorite beauty products are
housed, is a virtual toxic nightmare. The growing list of synthetic
ingredients manufacturers add to their products is turning the most
innocent-looking shampoos and moisturizers into cocktails of toxins
that could cause cancer or reproductive damage over years of
sustained use. Modern cosmetics contain a host of dangerous
ingredients, which would be more at home in a test tube than in our
Like most people, you probably assume that the
ingredients found in beauty
products have been thoroughly tested for safety well before they
land on your grocery store's shelves. After all, the government has
regulations in place for the water we drink, the food we eat and the
air we breathe. One would assume that the
FDA would also be overseeing the cosmetic industry to ensure the
health and safety of consumers. Unfortunately, the FDA has little
power when it comes to regulating the ingredients found in your
beauty products. In fact, the only people ensuring the safety of personal
care products are the very people who govern the industry: The
Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA). Scientists paid
by the CTFA make up the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel (CIR) and
are charged with regulating the safety of the industry's products.
In 2004, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)
released the findings of a study it conducted regarding the safety
of beauty care products. Comparing approximately 10,000 ingredients
found in 7,500 different products against lists of known and
suspected chemical health hazards, the research revealed that the
CIR was falling tragically short of ensuring consumer safety.
Of the 7,500 products tested by the EWG, a mere 28
had been evaluated for safety by the CIR. The EWG found that one in
every 120 products analyzed contained ingredients certified by the
government as known or probable carcinogens
and that nearly one-third of the products contained ingredients
classified as possible carcinogens. Astoundingly, 54 products even
violated recommendations for safe use that the CIR had put in place,
yet these products are still available for sale today.
Of the products tested, the worst offenders were
those containing the cancer-causing ingredients coal
tar, alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids, and those
containing the hormone-disrupting ingredient, phthalate.
Seventy-one hair dye products evaluated were found to
contain ingredients derived from coal tar (listed as FD&C or
D&C on ingredients labels). Several studies have linked
long-time hair dye use to bladder
cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
A research study conducted in 2001 by the USC
School of Medicine found that women using permanent hair dye at
least once a month more than doubled their risk of bladder cancer.
The study estimates that "19 percent of bladder cancer in women
in Los Angeles, California, may be attributed to permanent hair dye
A link between hair dye and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
was established in 1992 when a study conducted by the National
Cancer Institute found that 20 percent of all cases of
non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma may be linked to hair dye use.
While the FDA has not stepped in to prevent the
use of coal tar in beauty products, it does advise consumers that
reducing hair dye use will possibly reduce the risk of cancer.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
& Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)
Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acids are
commonly used in products advertised to remove wrinkles, blemishes,
blotches and acne scars. With consumer complaints of burning,
swelling and pain associated with AHA and BHA flooding into the FDA,
the regulatory body began conducting its own research about 15 years
ago. The findings linked the use of AHA and BHA with a doubling of
UV-induced skin damage and a potential increased risk of skin
According to the Environmental Protection Agency,
skin cancer has reached "epidemic proportions," with 1
million new cases occurring each year and one person dying every
hour from the disease. The agency estimates that, at the current
rate, one in five people will develop skin cancer over their
The FDA's study findings were presented to the
CIR, but the panel approved the continued use of AHA and BHA
"in spite of serious safety questions submitted by a consumer
group and a major manufacturer," according to an FDA
Even though one out of every 17 products analyzed
by the EWG study contained either AHA or BHA (with nearly 10 percent
being moisturizers and 6 percent sunscreens), the most that the FDA
could do was suggest that products containing the
ingredients carry a warning to use sunscreen and to limit sun
exposure while using the product. A puzzling solution, since some of
the products containing the dangerous ingredient are designed
specifically for use in the sun.
Phthalates are industrial plasticizers widely used in
personal care products to moisturize and soften skin, impart
flexibility to nail polish after it dries and enhance the fragrances
used in most products. Studies indicate that phthalates
cause a wide range of birth defects and lifelong reproductive
impairments, targeting every organ in the male reproductive system
and causing problems ranging from low sperm count to serious genital
deformities that can lead to an increased risk of cancer.
While the EWG only found four products with
phthalate listed as an ingredient (all nail care products), there is
no telling how many products actually contain it. The industry is
not required to list fragrance
ingredients or "trade secret" ingredients on products, and
phthalates often fall into one of those two categories.
In September 2004, the European Union implemented
a ban on all beauty products containing phthalates. California
Assemblywoman Judy Chu has proposed a similar bill (AB 908) to be
voted on later this year that would implement the same ban in the
United States. Opponents of the bill, mainly the CTFA, argue that
changing labeling processes would present a huge economic burden and
could infringe on trade secrets. A similar bill failed just last
Four Steps of Action
1. Go to www.ewg.org
and check out the health risks of your favorite products. EWG has
compiled a guide of 7,500 beauty care products and has ranked them
according to their ingredients' potential to cause cancer, trigger
allergic reactions, interfere with the endocrine (hormonal) system,
impair reproduction or damage a developing fetus.
2. Visit the FDA's website at www.fda.gov
and familiarize yourself with the steps that you can take in order
to file complaints or concerns about consumer products.
3. Visit www.safecosmetics.org
to learn more about how you can become involved with bill AB 908 to
ban phthalates in beauty products in the United States.
4. Check out my recommendations for all-natural
and safe products for both you and your family at www.scmedicalcenter.com.
All products mentioned have been used safely and with wonderful
results by my patients for years.
Dr. Connealy, M.D., M.P.H., began private
practice in 1986. In 1992, she founded South Coast Medical Center
for New Medicine where she serves as medical director. Her practice
is firmly based in the belief that strictly treating health problems
with medications does not find the root cause of the illness. Dr.
Connealy writes monthly columns for Coast and OC Health magazines,
and is a bi-weekly guest on Frank Jordan's "Healthy" radio
show. She routinely lectures and educates the public on health