From EWG Skin Deep
Myth – If it’s for sale at a supermarket, drugstore, or department store cosmetics counter, it must be safe.
Fact – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to require companies to test products for safety. FDA does not review or approve the vast majority of products or ingredients before they go on the market. The agency conducts pre-market reviews only for certain color additives and active ingredients in cosmetics classified as over-the-counter drugs (FDA 2005, 2010).
Myth – The cosmetics industry effectively polices itself, making sure all ingredients meet a strict standard of safety.
Fact – In its more than 30-year history, the industry’s safety panel (the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, or CIR) has assessed fewer than 20 percent of cosmetics ingredients and found only 11 ingredients or chemical groups to be unsafe (FDA 2007, CIR 2009, Houlihan 2008). Its recommendations are not binding on companies (Houlihan 2008).
Myth – The government prohibits dangerous chemicals in personal care products, and companies wouldn’t risk using them.
Fact – Cosmetics companies may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances, without government review or approval (FDA 2005, FDA 2000).
Fact – People are exposed by breathing in sprays and powders, swallowing chemicals on the lips or hands or absorbing them through the skin. Studies find evidence of health risks. Biomonitoring studies have found cosmetics ingredients – like phthalate plasticizers, paraben preservatives, the pesticide triclosan, synthetic musks, and sunscreens – as common pollutants in men, women and children. Many of these chemicals are potential hormone disruptors (Gray et al. 1986, Schreurs et al. 2004, Gomez et al. 2005, Veldhoen et al. 2006). Products commonly contain penetration enhancers to drive ingredients deeper into the skin. Studies find health problems in people exposed to common fragrance and sunscreen ingredients, including elevated risk for sperm damage, feminization of the male reproductive system, and low birth weight in girls (Duty et al. 2003, Hauser et al. 2007, Swan et al. 2005, Wolff et al. 2008).
Myth – Products made for children or bearing claims like “hypoallergenic” are safer choices.
Fact – Most cosmetic marketing claims are unregulated, and companies are rarely if ever required to back them up, even for children’s products. A company can use a claim like “hypoallergenic” or “natural” “to mean anything or nothing at all,” and while “[m]ost of the terms have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers,… dermatologists say they have very little medical meaning” (FDA 1998). An investigation of more than 1,700 children’s body care products found that 81 percent of those marked “gentle” or “hypoallergenic” contained allergens or skin and eye irritants (EWG 2007a).
Myth – Natural and organic products are always safer.
Fact – Products labeled natural or organic often contain synthetic chemicals, and even truly natural or organic ingredients are not necessarily risk-free. The global, plant-based pharmaceutical market, valued at $19.5 billion in 2008, relies on the ability of “natural” chemicals – like those used in some natural cosmetics – to significantly alter body functions, a far cry from innocuous (BCC Research 2006, 2009). On the other hand, products labeled “organic” or “natural” can contain petrochemicals and no certified organic or natural ingredients whatsoever. Products certified as organic can contain as little as 10% organic ingredients by weight or volume (Certech 2008). FDA tried establishing an official definition for the term “natural,” but these protections were overturned in court (FDA 1998). Research shows that 35 percent of children’s products marketed as “natural” contain artificial preservatives (EWG 2007a).
Myth – FDA would promptly recall any product that injures people.
Fact – FDA has no authority to require recalls of harmful cosmetics. Furthermore, manufacturers are not required to report cosmetics-related injuries to the agency. FDA relies on companies to report injuries voluntarily (FDA 2005).
Myth – Consumers can read ingredient labels and avoid products with hazardous chemicals.
Fact – Federal law allows companies to leave many chemicals off labels, including nanomaterials, ingredients considered trade secrets, and components of fragrance (Houlihan 2008). Fragrance may include any of 3,163 different chemicals (IFRA 2010), none of which are required to be listed on labels. Fragrance tests reveal an average of 14 hidden compounds per formulation, including potential hormone disruptors and diethyl phthalate, a compound linked to sperm damage (EWG & CSC, 2010).
Myth – Cosmetics safety is a concern for women only.
Fact – Surveys show that on average, women use 12 products containing 168 ingredients every day, men use 6 products with 85 ingredients (EWG 2004), and children are exposed to an average of 61 ingredients daily (EWG 2007a). The industry-funded CIR safety panel incorrectly assumes that consumers are exposed to just one chemical at a time, and personal care products are the only source of exposure (EWG 2004).
Authors: Jason Rano, Legislative Analyst, and Jane Houlihan, Senior Vice President for Research.
References BCC Research. 2006. Plant-Derived Drugs: Products, Technolog, Applications. Report Code BIO022D. June 2006. http://www.bccresearch.com/report/BIO022D.html.
BCC Research. 2009. Safety Botanical and Plant-Derived Drugs: Global Markets. Report Code BIO022E, February 2009. http://www.bccresearch.com/report/BIO022E.html.
Calafat AM, Wong LY, Ye X, Reidy JA, Needham LL. 2008. Concentrations of the sunscreen agent benzophenone-3 in residents of the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003–2004. Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Jul;116(7):893-7.
Certech Registration Inc. 2008. International organic standard – Natural and natural organic cosmetic certification. IOS Cosmetics. Issue 01. April 2008. http://www.certechregistration.com/IOS_cosmetics_standard.pdf.
CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review). 2009. Ingredients found unsafe for use in cosmetics (9 total, through December, 2009). http://www.cir-safety.org/findings.shtml.
CSC (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics). 2007. Lead in lipstick. http://www.safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=223.
CSC (The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics). 2009. No more toxic tub. http://www.safecosmetics.org/downloads/NoMoreToxicTub_Mar09Report.pdf.
Duty SM, Singh NP, Silva MJ, Barr DB, Brock JW, Ryan L, et al. 2003. The Relationship between Environmental Exposures to Phthalates and DNA Damage in Human Sperm Using the Neutral Comet Assay. Environ Health Perspect 111(9): 1164-9.
EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2004. Exposures Add Up – Survey Results. http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/research/exposures.php.
EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2006. EWG Comments to FDA on Nano-Scale Ingredients in Cosmetics. Docket: FDA Regulated Products Containing Nanotechnology Materials. Docket number: 2006N-0107. http://www.ewg.org/node/21738.
EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2007a. Safety Guide to Children’s Personal Care Products. http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/special/parentsguide/summary.php.
EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2007b. Cosmetics with banned and unsafe ingredients. Table 1 – Banned in other countries. Accessed June 21, 2010. http://www.ewg.org/node/22624.
EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2007c. Cosmetics With Banned and Unsafe Ingredients. Table 2 – Unsafe for use in cosmetics, according to industry. Accessed June 21, 2010. http://www.ewg.org/node/22636.
EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2007d. EWG research shows 22 percent of cosmetics may be contaminated with cancer-causing impurity. http://www.ewg.org/node/21286.
EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2010. EWG’s 2010 sunscreen guide. Nanomaterials and hormone disruptors in sunscreens. http://www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen/full-report/nanomaterials-and-hormone-disruptors-in-sunscreens/.
EWG & CSC (Environmental Working Group and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics). 2010. Not so sexy. Hidden chemicals in perfume and cologne. http://www.safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=644
FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). 1998. Clearing Up Cosmetic Confusion” by Carol Lewis. FDA Consumer magazine. May-June 1998. http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/health/cosmetic-confusion/398_cosm.html.
FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). 2000. Ingredients prohibited & restricted by FDA regulations. June 22, 1996; Updated May 30, 2000. http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm127406.htm.
FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). 2005. FDA authority over cosmetics. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-206.html.
FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). 2007. Compliance Program Guidance Manual. Program 7329.001. Chapter 29 – Colors and Cosmetics Technology. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/cosmetics/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/ComplianceEnforcement/ucm073356.pdf.
FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). 2010. Regulation of non-prescription products. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-206.html.
Gomez E, Pillon A, Fenet H, Rosain D, Duchesne MJ, Nicolas JC, et al. 2005. Estrogenic activity of cosmetic components in reporter cell lines: parabens, UV screens, and musks. Journal of toxicology and environmental health 68(4): 239-251.
Gray TJ, Gangolli SD. 1986. Aspects of the testicular toxicity of phthalate esters. Environmental health perspectives 65: 229-23.
Hauser R, et al. DNA damage in human sperm is related to urinary levels of phthalate monoester and oxidative metabolites. Hum Reprod. 2007;22(3):688-95.
Houlihan, J. 2008. Statement of Jane Houlihan on Cosmetics Safety: Discussion Draft of the ‘Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act’ Legislation: Device and Cosmetic Safety. Before the Subcommittee on Health of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, United State House of Representatives. May 14 2008. http://www.ewg.org/node/26545.
IFRA (International Fragrance Association). 2010. Ingredients. IFRA survey: Transparency list. http://www.ifraorg.org/public/index_ps/parentid/1/childid/15/leafid/111.
Schreurs RH, Legler J, Artola-Garicano E, Sinnige TL, Lanser PH, Seinen W, et al. 2004. In vitro and in vivo antiestrogenic effects of polycyclic musks in zebrafish. Environmental science & technology 38(4): 997-1002.
Swan SH, Main KM, Liu F, Stewart SL, Kruse RL, Calafat AM, et al. 2005. Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environ Health Perspect 113(8):1056-61.
Veldhoen N, Skirrow RC, Osachoff H, Wigmore H, Clapson DJ, Gunderson MP, et al. 2006. The bactericidal agent triclosan modulates thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and disrupts postembryonic anuran development. Aquatic toxicology (Amsterdam, Netherlands) 80(3): 217-227.
Wolff MS, Engel SM, Berkowitz GS, Ye X, Silva MJ, Zhu C, Wetmur J, Calafat AM. 2008. Prenatal phenol and phthalate exposures and birth outcomes. Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Aug;116(8):1092-7.
Benzalkonium chloride: Biocide, preservative and surfactant associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and allergies, … read more benzalkonium chloride is a sensitizer especially dangerous for people with asthma or skin conditions like eczema. It is found in many household disinfectants and cleaning supplies. Regular use of products containing antimicrobials such as benzalkonium chloride could lead to development of resistant bacteria.
BHA: The National Toxicology Program classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” … read more It can cause skin depigmentation. In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage and causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas and interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels. The European Union considers it unsafe in fragrance. It is found in food, food packaging, and personal care products sold in the U.S.
Coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (including Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine): Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, is a known human carcinogen… read more, according to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Hair stylists and other professionals are exposed to these chemicals in hair dye almost daily. While FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, the long-term safety of these products has not been demonstrated.
DMDM hydantoin & bronopol (2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol): Cosmetics preservatives that decompose and release formaldehyde… read more, which the International Agency on Research on Cancer lists as a known human carcinogen. The preservatives and their decomposition products, including formaldehyde, can trigger allergic reactions. About one-fifth of U.S. cosmetics and personal care products contain a chemical that releases formaldehyde. Not surprisingly, more Americans develop contact allergies to these ingredients than Europeans.
Formaldehyde: A potent preservative considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer.… read more Formaldehyde, also an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant, was once mixed into to many personal care products as antiseptic. This use has declined. But some hair straighteners are based on formaldehyde’s hair-stiffening action and release substantial amounts of the chemical. Many common preservatives also release formaldehyde into products (like DMDM hydantoin, quaternium, and urea compounds).
Fragrance: It may help sell products from face cream to laundry detergent, but do you know what’s in it? … read more Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant to lotion. Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top 5 allergens in the world. Our advice? Buy fragrance free.
Hydroquinone: A skin bleaching chemical that can cause a skin disease … read more called ochronosis, with blue-black lesions that in the worst cases become permanent black caviar-size bumps. In animal studies, hydroquinone has caused tumor development. The National Toxicology Program is conducting reproductive toxicity and dermal carcinogenicity studies of this chemical.
Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone: Preservatives, commonly used together in personal care products, among the most common irritants, sensitizers and causes of contact allergy … read more Lab studies on mammalian brain cells suggest that methylisothiazolinone may be neurotoxic.
Oxybenzone: Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber, found in nearly all Americans… read more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In human epidemiological studies, oxybenzone has been linked to irritation, sensitization and allergies. A study of 404 New York City women in the third trimester of pregnancy associated higher maternal concentration of oxybenzone with a decreased birth weight among newborn baby girls but with greater birth weight in newborn boys. Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites may disrupt the hormone system.
Parabens (Propyl, Isopropyl, Butyl, and Isobutylparabens): Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives, read more found in breast cancer tumors of 19 of 20 women studied. The CDC has detected parabens in virtually all Americans surveyed. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders.
PEG/Ceteareth/Polyethylene compounds: These synthetic chemicals are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. government considers a probably human carcinogen and which readily penetrates the skin. … read more Cosmetics makers could easily remove 1,4-dioxane from ingredients, but tests documenting its common presence in products show that they often don’t.
Petroleum distillates: Petroleum-extracted cosmetics ingredients, commonly found in mascara. … read more They may cause contact dermatitis and are often contaminated with cancer-causing impurities. They are produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil and chemical feedstocks.
Phthalates: A growing number of studies link this chemical to male reproductive system disorders. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phathalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance” indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.
Resorcinol: Common ingredient in hair color and bleaching products; skin irritant, toxic to the immune system and frequent cause of hair dye allergy. … read more In animal studies, resorcinol can disrupt normal thyroid function. The federal government regulates exposures to resorcinol in the workplace, but its use is not restricted in personal care products.
Retinyl palmitate and retinol (Vitamin A): Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, but excessive amounts can cause severe birth defects if women are exposed during pregnancy… read more New evidence shows that when applied to sun-exposed skin, for instance, in sunscreens, lip products and daytime moisturizers, these compounds can break down and produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and cause skin cancer. Recent date from the federal Food and Drug Administration indicate that when retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, it speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions.
Toluene: Volatile petrochemical solvent and paint thinner and potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant, impairs breathing and causes nausea … read more A pregnant woman’s exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may impair fetal development. In human epidemiological and animal studies, toluene has been associated with toxicity to the immune system. Some evidence suggests a link to malignant lymphoma.
Triclosan & Triclocarban: Antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban), very toxic to the aquatic environment….read more often found as contaminants in people due to widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products. Triclosan disrupts thyroid function and reproductive hormones. American Medical Association and the American Academy of Microbiology say that soap and water serves just as well to prevent spread of infections and reduce bacteria on the skin. Overuse may promote the development of bacterial resistance.
Antibacterials: Overuse of antibacterials can prevent them from effectively fighting disease-causing germs like E. coli and Salmonella enterica. Triclosan, widely used in soaps, toothpastes and deodorants, has been detected in breast milk, and one recent study found that it interferes with testosterone activity in cells. Numerous studies have found that washing with regular soap and warm water is just as effective at killing germs.
Diethanolamine (DEA): DEA is a possible hormone disruptor, has shown limited evidence of carcinogenicity and depletes the body of choline needed for fetal brain development. DEA can also show up as a contaminant in products containing related chemicals, such as cocamide DEA.
1,4-Dioxane: 1,4-Dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and a possible human carcinogen that can appear as a contaminant in products containing sodium laureth sulfate and ingredients that include the terms "PEG," "-xynol," "ceteareth," "oleth" and most other ethoxylated "eth" ingredients. The FDA monitors products for the contaminant but has not yet recommended an exposure limit. Manufacturers can remove dioxane through a process called vacuum stripping, but a small amount usually remains. A 2007 survey by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that most children's bath products contain 10 parts per million or less, but an earlier 2001 survey by the FDA found levels in excess of 85 parts per million.
Lead and mercury: Neurotoxic lead may appear in products as a naturally occurring contaminant of hydrated silica, one of the ingredients in toothpaste, and lead acetate is found in some brands of men's hair dye. Brain-damaging mercury, found in the preservative thimerosol, is used in some mascaras.
Nanoparticles: Nanoparticles, which may penetrate the skin and damage brain cells, are appearing in an increasing number of cosmetics and sunscreens. Most problematic are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles, used insunscreens to make them transparent. When possible, look for sunscreens containing particles of these ingredients larger than 100 nanometers. You'll most likely need to call companies to confirm sizes, but a few manufacturers have started advertising their lack of nanoparticle-sized ingredients on labels.
P-Phenylenediamine: Commonly found in hair dyes, this chemical can damage the nervous system, cause lung irritation and cause severe allergic reactions. It's also listed as 1,4-Benzenediamine, p-Phenyldiamine and 4-Phenylenediamine.
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