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Letter campaign targets nail salons

Letter campaign targets nail salons
Advocacy groups attack polish manufacturer OPI


by Julie DeardorffChicago Tribune
May 2nd, 2006

Nail products company OPI has long charmed women with whimsical shade names such as "O'Hare and Nails Look Great!" and "That's an EL of a color." It even launched a line of nail "pawlish" for pets.

But warm and fuzzy OPI is now under attack. In an effort to raise awareness about the unregulated chemicals in personal-care products, a coalition of health and environmental advocacy groups is pressing the Los Angeles-based company to sell what it calls "safer" brands of nail polish.

Over the last few weeks, women in cities around the world, including Chicago, have delivered letters of concern to nail salons that carry OPI nail products. The letters, available through the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (safecosmetics.org), urge the company to remove toxic chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems.

Local volunteer

Chicago's Niema Wilson, 26, who visited the Aveda Institute and the Gordon Salon in Lakeview, said she volunteered because she is concerned about some of the chemicals in everyday products. Aveda salons have been popular targets because Aveda markets itself as one of the greener cosmetic companies, yet it sells OPI.

"In many ways Aveda is one of the most environmentally friendly companies around," said Wilson, who considers the use of harmful cosmetic ingredients to be a global problem. "I just believe they can do better."

The ingredients in question include formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which are chemicals found in everything from roller skate wheels and insulation foam to electronics and perfumes.

In 2004, the European Union banned the use of DBP from cosmetics, citing a possible link to reproductive harm. The move forced OPI and other companies to remove DBP from nail products sold in 25 European countries. Though OPI said it is "continuing to evaluate" DBP, it hasn't removed it from the nail polish sold in the U.S.

The other two chemicals, toluene and formaldehyde, are listed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as "reasonably anticipated" to be human carcinogens. And all three ingredients are identified by California's Proposition 65, a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.

OPI agreed to take a closer look at DBP in December of this year, because it has been listed as a Prop 65 chemical, according to Kevin Donegan of the Breast Cancer Fund, which works to eliminate the environmental causes of the disease. "But they made no commitment to reformulation," Donegan said. "And they refused to sign the Compact for Safe Cosmetics."

Big companies haven't signed

That pledge, an agreement to replace hazardous ingredients with safer alternatives within three years, has been signed by more than 300 manufacturers of cosmetics and personal-care products. But the biggies, including OPI, L'Oreal, Revlon and Estee Lauder, the parent company of Aveda, have not signed.

The reason, according to OPI officials, is that there is no cause for concern regarding the safety of cosmetic ingredients, including their own. "All products and treatments produced and sold by OPI, including nail polish, have been substantiated for safety as required under federal law by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and qualified scientists and found to be safe," according to a statement.

"We believe, based on our rigorous testing methods and documented scientific studies on these ingredients, that OPI products - whether used once or over a lifetime -- are safe for use by consumers," the statement said. "These are the same ingredients used by all leading professional brands."

Unlike drugs, cosmetics do not undergo extensive testing before the FDA allows them on the market.

And Donegan said new scientific research shows that sometimes low-dose exposures to toxic chemicals can be more harmful than high-dose exposures, turning conventional thinking that "the dose makes the poison" on its head.

"Our position is that chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects do not belong in cosmetics and body-care products, period," he said.

The letters, which have been distributed in 38 U.S. cities and also to salons in England, Australia and Canada, are not just a consumer warning. The activists say the health of salon workers who are repeatedly exposed to the chemicals through skin and inhalation is also at stake. "Many women in beauty and nail salons work for long periods of time and often in poorly ventilated spaces," said Lisa Archer, campaigns coordinator for Friends of the Earth's U.S. Health and Environment Program.

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jdeardorff@tribune.com

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