Sources: IN THESE TIMES, Title: “To Die for”*; “Take a Powder”*, Date: February 17, 1997; March 3, 1997, Author: Joel Bleifuss
Mainstream media coverage: Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1997, page 3, zone C
SSU Censored Researchers: Robin Stovall, Gavin Grundmann, and Erika Well
SSU faculty Evaluator: Debora Hammond, Ph.D.
Do you use toothpaste, shampoo, sunscreen, body lotion, body talc, makeup, or hair dye? These are among the personal care products the American consumer has been led to believe are safe but that are often contaminated with carcinogenic byproducts, or that contain substances that regularly react to form potent carcinogens during storage and use.
Consumers regularly assume that these products are not harmful because they believe that they are approved for safety by the food and Drug Administration (FDA). But although the FDA classifies cosmetics, dividing them into 13 categories, it does not regulate them. An FDA document posted on the agency’s World Wide Web home page explains that “a cosmetic manufacturer may use any ingredient or raw material and market the final product without government approval.” (This is with the exception of seven known toxins, such as hexachlorophene, mercury compounds, and chloroform.) Should the FDA deem a product a danger to public health, it has the power to pull a cosmetic product from the shelves. However, in many of these cases, the FDA has failed to do so, despite mounting evidence that some of the most common cosmetic ingredients may double as deadly carcinogens.
Examples of products with potential carcinogens are: Clairol “Nice and Easy” hair color, which releases carcinogenic formaldehyde as well as Cocamide DEA (a substance that can be contaminated with carcinogenic nitrosamines or react to produce a nitrosamine during storage or use); Vidal Sassoon shampoo, which, like the hair dye, contains Cocamide DEA; Cover Girl makeup contains TEA, which is also associated with carcinogenic nitrosamines; and Crest toothpaste which contains titanium dioxide, saccharin, and FD&C Blue # 1 (known carcinogens).
One of the cosmetic toxins that consumer advocates are most concerned about are nitrosamines, which contaminate a wide variety of cosmetic products. In the 1970s, nitrosamine contamination of cooked bacon and other nitrite-treated meats became a public health issue, and the food industry, which is more strictly regulated than the cosmetic industry, has since drastically lowered the amount of nitrosamines found in these processed meats. But today nitrosamines contaminate cosmetics at significantly higher levels than were once contained in bacon.
The FDA has long known that nitrosamines in cosmetics pose a risk to public health. On April 10, 1979, FDA commissioner Donald Kennedy called on the cosmetic industry to “take immediate measures to eliminate, to the extent possible, NDELA [a potent nitrosamine] and any other N-nitrosamine from cosmetic products.” Since that warning, however, cosmetic manufacturers have done little to remove N-nitrosamines from their products, and the FDA has done even less to monitor them.
Individual FDA scientists are speaking out. The FDA’s Donald Havery and Hardy Chou, for example, proclaimed that the continued use of these ingredients contradicts what should be a social goal: keeping “human exposure to nitros-amines to the lowest level technologically feasible, by reducing levels in all personal care products.”
UPDATE BY AUTHOR JOEL BLEIFUSS: “Cosmetics are among the most unregulated, and therefore most potentially harmful, consumer products on the market. Consumers fail to realize that what you put on your skin is absorbed into the body. few publications put effort into investigating the cosmetics industry, which is not surprising since the industry is a major magazine and newspaper advertiser. This is especially true of the women’s magazines. Consequently, there is almost no good coverage of the industry.
“The Chicago-based Cancer Prevention Coalition is a reliable source of information, though the group has a definite point of view. The government scientists who do the research on cosmetic ingredients proved indispensable in helping me understand the science and the scope of the problem. The FDA’s public relations apparatus was only helpful to a point. Once I had hard questions for them, they strung me along until after my deadline had passed. For example, I wanted to know why the FDA and the Cosmetic Toiletry and fragrance Association both cite a talc workshop which they co-sponsor as refuting the link between ovarian cancer and talc, when the review that they commissioned on the epidemiological evidence—a review presented at the workshop—concluded just the opposite. And I wanted to know why the FDA, despite ample evidence of a link between ovarian cancer and talc, had refused to take regulatory action. I never got a response.”