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Skin deep: When it comes to cosmetic ingredients, buyer beware

by Leigh GroganSacramento Bee
March 1st, 2006

We're pretty picky when it comes to what we eat and drink. We routinely scan boxes and bottles for evil ingredients such as trans fats or fructose.

And partially hydrogenated oil? Not in my snack chips, thank you.

But when it comes to our personal-care products and cosmetics—cleansers, toners, shower gels, shampoo, body lotion, eye shadow, sunscreen, foundation—we plunk down the cash (about $35 billion a year) and then forget about it.

Moisturizers have earned our trust and loyalty more than milk. If they're sold in a drugstore or a department store—and all the better, endorsed by a gorgeous celebrity—they must be OK. Plus, we believe in the names—L'Oréal, Olay, Estée Lauder, Neutrogena.

Still, if we had to, could we decipher the labels that list ingredients? Get a load of some of these names: "tridecyl stearate," "triethanolamine" and "methylparaben."

What do they do? Why are they there?

Well, increasingly, there's a push to give users of the estimated 8 billion personal-care products and cosmetics in the United States the tools and the knowledge to learn.

From new state legislation to consumer-based Web sites, we're getting more and more ways to find out what is going on our bodies in addition to what's going in them.

While no one is saying that what we keep in our bathrooms is going to kill us, watchdog groups are applauding such endeavors to educate consumers.

"All those words on the labels (of personal-care products and cosmetics) do mean something, just like they do on food labels," says René Monero, director of aesthetics education and treatment development at Gene Juarez Salons and Spas in Seattle.

"As long as the (beauty) industry continues to grow, the consumer also has to learn and be up on these cutting-edge ingredients, such as peptides and hyaluronic acids," Monero says.

"What grade of the ingredient is being used and how much of it? How many studies were done and where?"

The Food and Drug Administration regulates the personal-care and cosmetics industries. Unlike the FDA's authority over drugs and medical devices, its oversight over cosmetics is less intensive. Cosmetics and their ingredients—except for colors—are not subject to FDA pre-market approval, for instance.

Meanwhile, no one can say with accuracy how many different ingredients are used in personal-care products. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group says the number is more than 10,000, while on the other end of the spectrum, cosmeticsaresafe.org, operated by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, says it's fewer than half that.

Certainly, the issue of ingredient safety continues to be a hot-button topic in California.

In August, the state Legislature approved SB 484, better known as the Safe Cosmetics Act. The bill, by Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, faced heavy opposition from the cosmetics industry but was signed into law in October by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In a nutshell, the bill requires cosmetics companies that sell products in this state to disclose to the Department of Health Services any ingredients—and their concentrations—that are identified by the state as being linked to cancer or birth defects.

It also gives the state the authority to demand any existing health and safety studies from the cosmetic manufacturers. Further, if the state determines that dangerous exposures are taking place, it can regulate those in occupational settings, such as nail and beauty salons.

SB 484 is to go into effect early next year.

In the meantime, watchdog groups point to California's Proposition 65, which voters passed in 1986. It requires the governor to publish an annual list of chemicals that are linked to diseases.

For example, last year, dibutyl phthalate (or DBP) was added to the Prop. 65 list. This chemical is a common ingredient used in some nail polishes to make them shiny and chip-resistant. It's also found in hairspray, deodorant and perfume. In the last item, it's used to dispense the scent evenly so that it lasts longer.

There already are signs that some companies are amenable to change.

"We've been quite successful in that regard," says Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund, which supported SB 484.

"About 263 companies have signed a pledge to inventory their ingredients and, in turn, implement substitutions for chemicals of concern," Nudelman says from San Francisco.

Some of those companies include the Body Shop, Zia Natural Skincare, Jasön Natural Cosmetics, Burt's Bees, Kiss My Face, Avalon Natural Products and Aubrey Organics.

But it's not just the bigger or better-known stores and brands that are getting involved. Smaller personal-care businesses, particularly those that manufacture so-called natural products, are watching with interest what goes on in the industry nationally.

Wil Baker is a co-owner of Max Green Alchemy, a company in San Francisco that makes products for the body and hair. He agrees there's a lot of hearsay, rumor and accusations out there about which ingredients are beneficial and which are not.

"We decided it would be easier not to have some of those (questionable) ingredients in our products," he says. "For example, instead of using parabens (chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetics), we opted to use grapefruit-seed extract."

Still, pretty packaging and promises of newfound youth in a jar can go a long way to distract consumers from what might—or might not—be on the label.

"The marketing that goes on in this (the cosmetics) industry can be upsetting at best and unlawful at worst," says Dr. Julia Hunter, a skin specialist in Los Angeles.

"Most of what's in personal-care products are fillers with no therapeutic benefits," she asserts. "You might as well drink a bunch of water (for the health of your skin) and buy something cheap."

Hunter knows, however, that consumers make buying decisions based on a number of pitches: advertising (TV and magazines), celebrity endorsements (Halle Berry for Revlon), even a friend's advice.

And that translates into 15 to 20 personal-care products, or more, used every day, most of them from the neck up.

"When consumers buy these products, and spend a lot of money, psychologically they believe in them, no matter how their skin is behaving," says Paula Begoun, who writes about the personal-care and cosmetics industries.

Begoun adds that, given the claims that companies make and the number of products sold, "it's astounding that plastic surgeons aren't going out of business."

Some consumers will turn to either a trained aesthetician or a dermatologist if trouble does erupt. Monero of the Gene Juarez Salons and Spas says the No. 1 condition she sees is sensitive skin that's red or flushed. Sometimes it's an allergic reaction to a product; sometimes it's another underlying reason.

Because of some skin issues she was experiencing, Linda Shultz, 41, of Sacramento, began looking more closely at the products she was using on her face and body.

"Before, I switched around products and didn't look at the labels," Shultz says. "After my itchy skin developed, I started looking at what was in the products I was considering buying, particularly the first several ingredients."

Now, Shultz has a specific regiment: a sea salt formulation for her body, Dove soap and Jasön Natural Cosmetics hand lotion.

Lori Misicka, 52, started using Dermalogica products in 1982. After moving to Sacramento in 1993, she switched to other brands and wound up with a case of adult acne. The next year, after the acne cleared, she was back on the Dermalogica.

"I will not change again," she says. "The ingredients work for me."

She says her skin is in great shape.

Thus, it's less a case of emptying the medicine chests and makeup bags and more about making informed decisions when shopping; not so much "buyer beware" as "buyer be aware."

Tips on choosing cosmetics, personal-care products
So what should consumers think about when choosing personal-care products and cosmetics?

Here are some tips from the experts:

* From cosmetics guru and author Paula Begoun: "Never buy a product claiming to contain antioxidants or fancy ingredients (such as plant extracts) and that comes in a jar. These ingredients don't like air and sunlight; sticking your finger in (the container) contaminates the product. Opt for tubes and pumps."

* From Dr. Julia Hunter in Los Angeles: "When you visit a cosmetics counter, always ask to see the box that the product comes in, because that's usually where the ingredients are listed, not on the bottle or jar. If you shop in open-sell stores (drugstores, supermarkets), read the ingredients label before buying."

* From Dr. Suzanne Kilmer, director of the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of Northern California: "If you experience sensitive or irritated skin, and you use dryer sheets, stop using them. Most people don't realize that the fibers (in the sheets) are coated with perfume."

* From Wil Baker of Max Green Alchemy: "For consumers who are really concerned about what's in their products, consider purchasing an ingredients dictionary and researching the products yourself."

* From Carrie Stern, beauty editor at Quick & Simple magazine: "Sun protection is very important. Look for products that have SPF (sun protection factor) 15 or higher and contain physical blockers like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide."

* From Colette Courtion, founder and CEO, Calidora Skin Clinic in Seattle: "For consumers, what's best for them is to not just rely on the marketing messages or celebrity endorsements (for products). If possible, find someone who is licensed and educated to explain what will work best on your particular skin type."