Wellesley resident talks about how to safeguard oneself against personal care products

By Jessica Langerman/Townsman correspondent
GateHouse News Service
Posted Feb 01, 2010 @ 12:07 PM
Wellesley —
Of the many things we may find ourselves worrying about today – global warming, the wavering economy, antibiotics for sale etc. – the safety of our personal health care products probably hasn’t been one. Until now.

That is the unwelcome, but very real piece of news communicated last Thursday night at the Wellesley Middle School by Sara Azzam, chairman of the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project. For Azzam, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor and whose father died of multiple myeloma, helping to raise awareness of the many dangerous chemicals in American-made beauty and “health” products is a passion. She has written many articles about the use of hazardous chemicals in pesticides, dry-cleaning, personal care products, and water, encouraging individuals to change what we “put into and onto our bodies, thus preventing cancer in future generations.”

Azzam began the evening with a personal anecdote. Several years ago, she decided to count the number of personal care products she used each day – items like toothpaste, soap, lotion, deodorant, etc. – before putting on any makeup. She was surprised to discover she used 12 – and “none of them I felt I could do without.”

Then, she said, “I moved on to my cosmetics: foundation, concealer, mascara, blush, face powder, eye shadow, eye liner, lipstick or gloss. Then, I thought about other stuff: eye cream, anti-ageing products for those of us who are a little older… acne products for teenagers; nail polish, nail polish remover, cuticle cream, facial mask, body scrub, sunscreen, hair color, eye care products, and insect repellant in the summer.” Finally, she considered the “big products” available for common conditions such as roseacia, dandruff, exema, scoriesis, severe acne or dermatitis.

“If the items used are prescription, their manufacture may be guided by FDA regulations,” said Azzam. Shockingly, however, the manufacture of all other personal care products has no government oversight.

This, says Azzam, is a “multi-billion-dollar industry with a complete lack of government regulation – which is kind of scary, when you think about it.”

Quoting a statement released by Linda Katz, Director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors Division, Azzam said, “The FDA will step in ‘if we start noticing that there are a lot of adverse reports coming in. If we find out there’s a product out there that’s unsafe, we can gather data and contact the distributor or the manufacturer. Recalls, however, are the prerogative of the company that makes or distributes it.’”

In Europe, Azzam pointed out, all chemicals used in the manufacture of personal care products must pass the “precaution principle,” in which a chemical must be found to be safe before it can be introduced to the market. Those “known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects” have been illegal since 2004. The United States acts in the exact opposite manner. Here, as clarified in Katz’s statement, a body of adverse evidence must be accumulated before the Food and Drug Administration will step in to examine the safety of a certain product ingredient. Whereas over 1,100 chemicals have been banned in the European Union, 10 have been banned in the United States. Huge cosmetics companies such as L’Oreal or Estee Lauder sell products both here and abroad, but those distributed in Europe are reformulated to meet the demands of its regulatory agencies. Why aren’t those same formulations used here? Simply put, they are more expensive.

There is some good news, however, California has passed a bill under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration that demands warning labels and the disclosure of ingredients in personal care and cleaning products that may cause cancer or birth defects. The law also protects salon workers who are constantly bombarded by hazardous chemicals. Additionally, there are now various American organizations dedicated to educating the public about the dangers associated with the chemicals in commonly used products. Two of the better known are the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., which focuses on a broad spectrum of environmental concerns, and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a local organization concerned primarily with beauty products.

The Safe Cosmetics Campaign has also put together the Safe Cosmetic Compact, in which participants must pledge not to use certain dangerous ingredients. Well-respected companies such as the Body Shop, CA Baby, Kiss My Face, Giovanni, Dr. Bronner’s, Lavera, Nature’s Gate, Burt’s Bees have all signed the compact. Unfortunately, sometimes these companies change hands – for example, the Body Shop was recently purchased by L’Oreal; Tom’s of Maine was recently bought by Colgate; and Burt’s Bees was just purchased by, surprisingly, Clorox. Whether or not the new management will change the ingredients remains to be seen.

“It’s essential to be vigilant,” Azzam warned. Whenever a company claims it is doing something safely, insist upon seeing its material safety data sheet. Any company employing chemicals is required to have this information. Consumers can also check out www.cosmeticsdatabase.com, a comprehensive database of American-made personal care products. Each product is rated for safety using a 1 – 10 scale. Built to be a “one-of-a-kind resource,” according to the website, the database integrates its “in-house collection of personal care product ingredient listings with more than 50 toxicity and regulatory databases.”

“No one is suggesting you need to put personal hygiene aside,” Azzam smiled, illustrating the point by wearing formaldehyde-free nail polish and providing a basket of sample “safe” cosmetics. “You just need to be careful of what you put on and into your body.”

What can we as consumers do to help effect change? Azzam herself has joined the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and has personally written letters to cosmetics companies. She was also involved in a march in front of department stores in Downtown Crossing trying to draw attention to the fact that they sell cosmetics with unsafe chemicals in them.

For more information, please see the Environmental Working Group’s web site at: http://www.ewg.org/; the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project at: www.wcpponline.org; and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at: http://www.safecosmetics.org.