My toxic valentine

DOWNEY - It's Valentine's Day. You have a big night out planned. You jump in the shower, soap up and shampoo. Dry off, roll on deodorant, spray perfume or cologne. Mousse your hair. Brush your teeth. Girls, apply makeup. Guys, lather up and shave.You smell good, look good, and exude a clean, healthy glow. But ask yourself: what exactly is in the products you just drenched your body in, and how safe are they? Naturally, we assume our government has tested and approved any personal care product that can be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstreams, right? Wrong. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't review or regulate any cosmetic product before it hits the shelves. And the $50 billion cosmetics industry (encompassing all personal care products except soap) is among the nation's least-regulated. The disturbing news is that manufacturers can put essentially anything they please into those tubes and bottles, and are intimately exposing us to substances known or suspected to be gender-bending, cancer-causing, or otherwise harmful. For example, your luscious red lipstick may contain lead, which brightens the color and keeps it on your lips longer. But when you eat or lick your lips, you ingest that lipstick - about four pounds worth over a lifetime, says Glamour magazine. Lead may also be found in your sunscreen, foundation makeup, or whitening toothpaste. Lead accumulates in the body over time, and may disrupt fertility, trigger miscarriages, or seep from mother to unborn child, causing brain damage. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), just 11 percent of the approximately 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products have ever been safety tested - and those were assessed by the fox-guarding-the-henhouse Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, funded by manufacturers. In thirty years, that group has identified just nine unsafe ingredients. Compare that with the European Union's approach. In 2003, the EU Cosmetics Directive outlawed the use of 1,100 chemicals in cosmetics suspected of causing cancer, genetic mutations, or birth defects. Our government also fails to protect us through labeling.While companies are required to list ingredients, there are no labeling standards. So any manufacturer can legally trumpet its products as "safe," "natural," "non-toxic," or "organic," even when they contain numerous synthetic, petroleum-based chemicals. Scientists know with certainty that some toxic ingredients should be avoided. Foremost are parabens, which disrupt hormone, immune, and brain function and are linked to cancer. But they are widely used by manufacturers as preservatives - pesticides that allow us to leave shampoo in the shower for years without growing bacteria or fungus. They are used in so many products that researchers have found traces in nearly all urine samples taken from American adults. They've also been found in breast tumors. Three-quarters of us also have detectable levels of triclosan in our bodies, a "germ-fighting" ingredient in most soaps that lowers testosterone and alters other hormone levels, and interferes with metabolism by disrupting thyroid function. But many of the most dangerous components of your shaving cream, hair dye, or deodorant are not even listed on the label. Many are byproducts created in the manufacturing process, such as 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, which readily penetrate the skin and are classified as probable human carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And as much as we love wearing an alluring cologne or soaking in a scented bath, we're barred from knowing what makes up those fragrances. Since fragrance is considered a trade secret, companies are exempted from revealing the innumerable synthetic compounds brewed into their products. What scientists also find alarming is that little is known about how chemicals in personal care products accumulate or interact inside the body, or how exposure in-utero or in childhood impacts health. We do know that mothers exposed during pregnancy to phthalates (common in deodorants, makeup, and soaps) are giving birth to sons with smaller and feminized genitals. And a 2006 university study suggested that the earlier your daughter starts using certain cosmetics - and the more she uses - the greater her risk of developing breast cancer. It's obvious that voluntary self-regulation of the cosmetics industry is putting us, the consumer, in harm's way. Critics charge that the FDA essentially functions as a marketing arm of the cosmetics industry, not a public protector. We deserve stronger federal oversight and regulation of toxic chemicals in cosmetics. But until safety standards are overhauled, we must make informed choices. You can assess product safety at EWG's "Skin Deep" []. It ranks the hazards of 30,000 beauty products and 10,000 ingredients, using data compiled from over 50 international government and university databases. On average, an American adult is exposed to 120 chemicals daily through personal care products. To be truly safe, use less, since what we slather on our bodies can have consequences that go much further than skin deep. Sharon Guynup's writing has appeared in The New York Times Syndicate, Popular Science, The Boston Globe,, and other publications. © 2009 Blue Ridge Press ********** Published: February 13, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 43