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Consumer Group Urges Cosmetics Industry Makeover


Cosmetics -- everything from soaps and shampoos to makeup and perfume -- are a $35 billion industry in the United States. American consumers might be surprised to learn that cosmetics manufacturers are not required to test a product for safety before putting it on the market.

But that may be changing. A new California law is the first to require that cosmetics companies disclose potentially toxic ingredients.

The weekend is a busy time at cosmetics counters at shopping malls across the United States. That's where Carrie Hetges, 17, takes a seat for a free makeup session with Kristin Milan, product consultant with Benefit cosmetics. "Look up for me dear! We are going to give you a nice natural glow," she tells her customer. When Carrie tells her she isn't going anywhere special today, Kristin Milan says simply, "Every woman should be pampered."

Kristin Milan pampers Carrie's face, eyelids, eyelashes, eyebrows and lips. Minutes later the young blond, blue-eyed teen looks in the mirror and likes what she sees. "It's really a new me," she says, "My boyfriend I think will like that."

In rapid succession, Kristin Milan applies nine products to Carrie's face. On average, American women use nine products -- from hand lotion to toothpaste -- each day. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says these products must be safe and their ingredients labeled, the FDA has not set a safety standard. The industry -- which sponsors a product review panel -- largely regulates itself.

Jane Houlihan, with the Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy organization, says people have a right to know the health risks associated with the products they use. In a recent study, EWG analyzed ingredients in 14,000 cosmetics. "We compiled those in a massive electronic database and then compared it systematically against government and academic lists of suspected health effects from these chemicals," she says.

Ms. Houlihan says the industry's review panel has tested only 11% of the 10,500 ingredients in these products. "That means the vast majority of what we are using on our bodies everyday has not been assessed for safety publicly," she says. "We also found many products that do raise concerns -- progesterone, placenta -- ingredients that are hormonally active that could affect our hormone system, ingredients that can effect reproduction or a healthy pregnancy."

A new law in California makes it the first state to require manufacturers to disclose known or suspected carcinogens or ingredients that could affect developmental or reproductive health. Jane Houlihan applauds the new law, but says the industry must do more.

"It doesn't make sense to use carcinogens, reproductive toxins, developmental toxins in personal care products when there are alternatives," she says. "We need to see companies proactively make formulation changes to safer ingredients. And I think the California law will encourage that."

A statement from the Cosmetic, Toiletry, Fragrance Association -- the leading industry trade group -- says the California law is "damaging" and "will do nothing to increase public safety." Industry analyst and columnist David Steinberg sums up the industry position: "California has been loosing manufacturing jobs in the cosmetic industry for about the past 20 years. That is going to accelerate," he says.

Mr. Steinberg says the law requires checking to see if cosmetics contain any of 50,000 chemicals. "We are right now doing computer studies to see if any of them are showing up in cosmetics," he says, "and we are not finding very many of them. This bill is a joke. It is not making anyone safer. It is creating bureaucracy. And would you show me one person who was injured by a known ingredient in cosmetics that has caused cancer or reproductive toxicity."

Jane Houlihan with the Environmental Working Group says the proof comes from scientific studies: "A growing body of evidence shows that people who use dark hair dyes for long periods of time -- for years in their life -- face increased risks of bladder cancer," she says. "We have new evidence in the area of phthalates. These are common plasticizers. They are used in fragrances and nail polishes. And, a new study this year has shown that baby boys exposed to phthalates through breast milk or in utero -- through their mother's exposures -- have impaired reproductive development."

Jane Houlihan says new research will help consumers make better choices. She calls on the industry to set meaningful safety standards for their products. The Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association faults the EWG study and says consumers should not be alarmed. Safety decisions, the Association president says, must be based on "sound science and not on misleading rhetoric and Internet rumor."

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