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Face up to what is in your make-up

by Eleanor ChenNew Straits Times
January 8th, 2013

THE average woman uses 12 skincare and make-up products containing 168 different ingredients daily. Many cosmetic chemicals are designed to penetrate into the skin's inner layers, and they do.

Common ingredients that turn up in people's bodies include phthalates in nail polish, perfume and shampoo that have been associated with hormone disruption and parabens, which are preservatives.

Cosmetics are being promoted as organic despite many products not being certified by any recognised organic groups. Compared with organic food, where consumers could be guaranteed that they were buying genuine organic, certification of organic cosmetics is still a grey area.

The use of the term "organic" in cosmetics could be misleading. For example, can or should a product that only uses a tiny bit of aloe vera claim to be organic? The government should regulate against green washing.

Smart consumers can read the labels and educate themselves to avoid ingredients like sodium laureth sulphate, or sodium lauryl ether sulphate (SLES), a detergent and surfactant commonly found in personal care products like soap, shampoo and toothpaste.

Because they are inexpensive and effective foaming agents, SLS and SLES are used in many cosmetic products. They are irritants while some are probably carcinogenic.

Some of the most harmful ingredients include:

PHTHALATES -- plasticisers that are probable human reproductive or developmental toxins and endocrine disruptors often hidden on labels under "fragrance". Two phthalates -- dibutyl and diethlhexyl -- are often used in cosmetics;

PARABENS -- "methylparaben", "propylparaben", "ethylparaben", and "butylparaben" are used as antimicrobial preservatives in food and cosmetics. Parabens are absorbed through intact skin and through the gastrointestinal tract and blood. Research has found that measurable concentrations of parabens in 20 types of human breast tumours; and,

TRICLOSAN and triclocarban -- antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban) are toxic to the aquatic environment. Often found as contaminants in people due to widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products, triclosan disrupts thyroid function and reproductive hormones.

So, are the words "natural" or "safe" on the make-up packaging a guarantee? No. To safeguard your skin and health, look for manufacturers who have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics and pledged to replace them with safer alternatives.

From 2004 to 2011, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org) coordinated the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a voluntary pledge of safety and transparency which more than 1,500 companies signed. In November 2011, they released their market shift report highlighting 321 cosmetic companies (CFSC calls them "champions") that met the goals of the Compact.

But, how would you know?  One way to be an informed consumer is to check the Environmental Working Group's online database (www.ewg.org/skindeep) of nearly 25,000 personal care products and compare the brands within that product class.

And read, read, read the labels of products to make informed decisions. Avoid ingredients like lead, triclosan, formaldehyde, toluene (used as a solvent and found in gasoline, acrylic paints, varnishes, lacquers, paint thinners, adhesives, glues, rubber cement, airplane glue and shoe polish), hydroquinone (a skin-bleaching chemical that the United States' Food and Drug Administration warned can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, with "disfiguring and irreversible" blue-black lesions), parabens and phthalates.

There are natural skin care products that use plants grown using the biodynamic method of organic farming with emphasis on the holistic development and interrelationships of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system.

Companies like Weleda pioneered the use of biodynamic and organically grown ingredients in the personal care industry back in 1921. Weleda products are free from synthetic fragrances, colours, preservatives, emulsifying agents (such as SLS) and parabens.

Malaysia's Guidelines for the Control of Cosmetic Products, a series of prohibitions and restrictions in the use of listed ingredients in cosmetics manufacture, sales or supply, help with efficient regulatory controls.

However, the National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau (NPCB), which controls the cosmetics industry and sale, only conducts post-market surveillance in the marketplace and at the premises of the company or person responsible for placing the product in the market.

This is more comprehensive compared with the US Food and Drug Administration, which only regulates colours used in the cosmetics and hair dyes.

The real challenge is how efficient and effective our approval is, plus the NPCB review and surveillance systems. Last week, three skincare products -- one local and two made in Indonesia -- were pulled off the shelves as they contained tretinoin and mercury, which are prohibited.

Many companies are making safer products that work just as well if not better than products made with toxic chemicals -- the challenge is in doing some research to find them.