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New Power for 'Old Europe' | The Nation

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New Power for 'Old Europe'

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A Makeover for the Cosmetics Industry

About the Author

Mark Schapiro
Mark Schapiro is an investigative journalist in New York specializing in foreign affairs. In addition to The Nation,...

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Every morning across America, tens of millions of women apply to themselves an average of nine "personal care" products. From tubes and bottles and delicate brushes come the tools of beauty and self-preservation known as cosmetics. Users of these products might assume that somebody is watching to insure that potentially toxic ingredients are kept away from intimate contact with their body. They would be wrong. Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor any other government agency regulates ingredients used in the preparation of cosmetics. The Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1938 established extraordinarily lax standards for the regulation of cosmetic ingredients. But earlier this year, when the Environmental Working Group compared the ingredients in 7,400 personal care products with potentially hazardous chemicals identified by the Centers for Disease Control and other leading medical institutions, dozens of varieties of skin and tanning lotions, nail polish, mascara and other personal care products were found to contain known and suspected carcinogenic, mutagenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals.

The improvisational nature of the cosmetics industry is about to change. EU member states submitted plans to the European Commission to institute new guidelines established by what's known as the "Cosmetics Directive," which takes effect this coming February. The directive calls for the removal of ingredients suspected of causing "harm to human health" from cosmetics and personal care products in Europe. The effects of that directive are being felt around the world.

The main regulatory body for cosmetics in the United States is the industry itself, represented by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA). What that means, in effect, is that several times a year a Cosmetic Ingredient Review board (CIR)--made up of toxicologists drawn primarily from universities and paid for by the CTFA--reviews the existing literature on ingredients and makes recommendations to the industry. There is nothing that requires any member company to respond to the board's safety or health recommendations.

Over the past three years the review board suggested that at least nineteen ingredients be removed from personal care products--including coal tar, a hair dye linked to high rates of bladder cancer among hairdressers; sodium borate, sometimes called boric acid, which has been linked to testicular development problems and is included in Desitin diaper rash ointment for infants, and which the CIR recommended "should not be used on infant or injured skin"; iodopropynyl butylcarbamate, a mutagen in animal testing included in a South Beach tanning spray that the CIR recommended "not be used in products intended to be aerosolized"; and ethoxyethanol acetate in nail polish, which the CIR stated is "unsafe for use in cosmetic products." The FDA has done nothing to mandate removal of these or legions of other potentially dangerous ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Last spring the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, a group of women's and environmental health NGOs, sent an appeal to some 250 firms that sell personal care products in the United States, asking that they conform to the health requirements of the EU's Cosmetics Directive as well as take other actions to insure more stringent controls over potentially toxic ingredients. Of those, the campaign heard from sixty-five companies; responses ranged from resistance to accommodation. Revlon and Estee Lauder replied by citing the CTFA's official response to the EU: On March 25, CTFA stated that the directive "represents an unnecessary change in the philosophy of regulation of cosmetic ingredients in the EU."

Other major producers, like L'Oreal, Liz Claiborne and Gillette, responded that they were already beginning the process of reformulating their products to conform to the requirements of the Directive; the Gap and Alberto Culver indicated that they would do so if they discovered ingredients within the EU's range of health concerns. Natural product companies, like Aveda, Custom Aesthetics and numerous small firms, claimed they were already in compliance. Several of the largest companies, like Unilever, have yet to respond, while Procter & Gamble insisted to the campaign that it would continue its policy of formulating products on a market-by-market basis. After the Safe Cosmetics Campaign began running a newspaper ad in the fall about the potential health dangers from cosmetics, Revlon shifted gears, indicating its willingness to abide by the EU's new strict rules.

"We are asking companies to be accountable for the safety of their cosmetics," says Janet Nudelman, program director of the Breast Cancer Fund. To accomplish that goal, public health advocates looked not to Washington but to Brussels--where the EU is now a force that enjoys transatlantic reach and is far tougher than our own FDA.

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