|Some recommendations for the safe use of cosmetics and some ingredients to look out for|
by Herb Denenberg, The Evening Bulletin, Penn.
February 22nd, 2007
The Environmental Working Group has come up with some advice for playing it safe with cosmetics. It starts by pointing out, “With no required safety testing, cosmetics companies can use almost any chemical they want, regardless of risks. Always read product labels before buying.”
Then it makes five recommendations for safe shopping when it comes to cosmetics:
1.“Use plain soap. Avoid bath or beauty bars with fragrance, dyes, and preservatives.”
2. “Don’t trust the claims. Manufacturers don’t have to back up terms like dermatologist-tested, natural and organic.
3. “Buy fragrance-free products. Products with ‘fragrance’ on their product ingredient list may contain chemicals linked to allergies and reproductive problems.”
4. “Avoid products with propriety or trademarked ingredients like ‘preservatives’ or ‘colors’ that can contain chemicals of concern.”
5. “Simpler is generally safer. Fewer ingredients usually mean lower risks.”
I’d add a few more ways to increase your chances for safety and value:
1. Don’t assume high prices correlate with high quality. It rarely does with any products and certainly not with cosmetics. Also, keep in mind that the biggest cost to the manufacturer may not be the cosmetic itself, but the packaging, the marketing and the rest. So instead of an expensive, fancy moisturizer you might consider just using Vaseline, a trademarked product, for the generic petrolatum or petroleum jelly. The late, great dermatologist from Temple University, Fred Urbach, used to tell me Crisco was just as good or better than many of the expensive moisturizers.
2. Stick to retailers and manufacturers you know and trust. That isn’t an ironclad measure to assure safety and value, but at least there is less likelihood of encountering a product from a totally irresponsible source. Notice I’m not paying a big complement to the big manufacturers. I’m just saying they are less likely to be totally irresponsible than some of their competitors.
3. Just as with drugs, do a little research on your own when buying cosmetics. Your public library and the Internet can be rich sources of information on cosmetics. For example, one source if Ruth Winter’s A Consumer Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (6th ed., 2005), which contains most cosmetic ingredients and some information on their uses and risks. Another example is the Begoun book, quoted above. Also, don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist and doctor about cosmetics when you have some serious questions about them.
4. You have to keep track of your reactions to cosmetics that you have adverse reactions to, and make sure you don’t get others with an ingredient you can’t tolerate. John Bailey, a former director of the FDA’s cosmetics office, put it this way: “The agency can’t do much about isolated allergic reactions or irritation problems. It’s up to the individual to avoid the product that caused the reaction and any other products that contain the offending ingredient.” That sentence would be equally true if the period were placed earlier, as in, “The agency can’t do much.”
5. Be especially careful in buying and using cosmetics that are used around the eye, mouth or other especially vulnerable areas. For example, discard mascara after a few months of use.
6. Pay attention to any warnings or other information on the label, and note shelf life and any advice on when to throw away cosmetics.
In a previous column I listed the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) top six ingredients to avoid: Fragrance; alpha & beta hydroxy acids (AHA, BHA, lactic acid, glycolic acid); parabens (methylparabens, propylparbens); triethanolamine; lodopropynyl butylcarbamate; and triclosan (anti-microbial liquid soap).
Here are some other ingredients the EWG says to avoid:
SUNSCREENS: Avoid padimate-O and paba. The low risk ingredients in this category are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
NAIL POLISH: Avoid dibutylphthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene. The safer way to use: In well-ventilated areas, but “don’t use when pregnant.”
HAIR DYE: Avoid dark permanent hair dyes. The low-risk hair dyes are light-colored hair dyes used infrequently.
SKIN LIGHTENERS. Avoid hydroquinone and sodium nitrate. The EWG recommends avoiding altogether or at least using skin lighteners infrequently.
ANTI-AGING. Avoid lactic acid and glycolic acid, AHA (alpha hydroxy acid), and BHA (beta hydroxy acid). The EWG recommends avoiding products in this class altogether or at least using infrequently.
SUNLESS TANNING. Avoid coumarin and dihydroxy acetone. EWG recommends using products in this class infrequently, if at all, and using a sunscreen even though you look tan. Cosmetics, as a class, are not as potentially dangerous as drugs. Nevertheless, you should approach their purpose and use with caution, and not assume that some government regulator is looking out for you or that cosmetics are perfectly safe or perfectly harmless.