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Beauty to die for: health hazards of cosmetics and skin care products revealed

Friday, January 20, 2006 by: Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.
Tags: skin care, cosmetics, alpha hydroxy acid

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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 bodies.

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.

Coal Tar

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 use."

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 cancer.

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 lifetime.

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 spokesperson.

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

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 year.

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 issues.

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