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FAQ: General Questions About Cosmetics and Health

Is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics saying that my lipstick or my deodorant can give me cancer?

Doesn't the government certify that personal care products are safe and healthy before they can be sold to consumers?

I don't wear very much make-up, so I'm probably safe, right?

Are our products affecting wildlife, rivers and streams?

Why are so many cosmetics contaminated with carcinogens?

What are cosmetics companies doing to address this problem?

What can we do to get products that are safe for our families?

So what can I do?

Q. Is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics saying that my lipstick or my deodorant can give me cancer?

A. No, we're not. The chemicals present in any one cosmetic product are unlikely to cause harm. But none of us use just one product. Think about how many products you use in a single day - from toothpaste to soap, shampoo, hair conditioner, deodorant, body lotion, shaving products and makeup - and how many products you use in a year, and over a lifetime. Small amounts of toxic chemicals add up and can accumulate in our bodies through cosmetic use and through other chemical exposures in food, water and air. Chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects do not belong in personal care products, period.

Q. Doesn’t the government certify that personal care products are safe and healthy before they can be sold to consumers?

A. No. Major loopholes in federal law allow the $50 billion cosmetics industry to put unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no required monitoring of health effects, and inadequate labeling requirements.

Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they are sold to the public. FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing.

Q. I don’t wear very much make-up, so I’m probably safe, right?

A. Unfortunately, that is not a safe assumption, because we’re talking about more than make-up. Even baby bubble bath can contain toxic chemicals!

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is focused on making deodorant, toothpaste, hair gels, shampoos and all the other grooming products that men, women and children use safe for consumers and the environment by removing toxic ingredients. Reducing the amount of products you use will reduce your overall exposure, but the goal is to make all personal care products safe for everyone to use.

Q: Are our products affecting wildlife, rivers and streams?

A: When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sought to understand human exposures to industrial plasticizers called phthalates, they passed up food, water, air or human blood testing, and targeted urine instead. When ingredients in personal care products seep through human skin into our bodies, many end up in human excretions. Other ingredients get washed down the drain when we wash our hair and bodies in the shower, or clean a day's makeup and lotion off our faces at the end of the day.

A growing number of studies targeting what are known as "PPCPs" — pharmaceuticals and personal care products — are finding our personal care product ingredients in rivers and streams across the country. And some ingredients have been linked to impacts on wildlife; those that affect the balance of hormones in an organism, for example, have been linked to feminization of fish and other aquatic life.

Personal care products are chock full of chemicals that act like estrogen and that raise concerns with respect to wildlife. Examples? Fifty-seven percent of all products contain paraben preservatives, nearly 2 percent contain surfactants called alkylphenols and just over 2 percent contain estrogenic sunscreen ingredients, according to a 2004 product assessment by Campaign co-founder the Environmental Working Group.

Environmental Working Group's research shows that 50 percent of all products on the market contain added "fragrance," an industry catch-all for formulations that are complex mixtures of chemicals and not subject to labeling requirements. Some of these chemicals are persistent, some neurotoxic and some newly found to harm wildlife. Researchers at Stanford University published work in 2004 showing that mussels lost their ability to clear their bodies of poisons when exposed to parts-per-billion levels of common fragrance musks.

When the ingredients in our products are harming wildlife, what must be their impact on us? That is a question that remains unanswered by the cosmetics industry, which has near-complete discretion over product safety.

Q: Why are so many cosmetics contaminated with carcinogens?

A: The Food and Drug Administration has almost no authority to regulate cosmetics. FDA cannot require safety testing of products before they are sold, and does not systematically assess the safety of ingredients. Instead, the cosmetic industry polices the safety of its own products through a safety panel that is run and funded by the industry's trade association. In the absence of mandated testing or even FDA guidance on product safety, some companies make products safe enough to eat, while other companies routinely add carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals to their formulations.

Q: What are cosmetics companies doing to address this problem?

A: More than 1,500 companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to remove chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems. Unfortunately, not one of the large mainstream companies – the brands found in most drug stores, supermarkets and high-end beauty stores – has signed the pledge. In fact, the largest companies and their trade group, the Personal Care Products Council (formerly the Cosmetics Toiletry and Fragrance Association), have lobbied against laws that would protect consumers from hazardous chemicals and have fought hard to keep their products unregulated. In the face of mounting concerns about toxic ingredients, the largest cosmetics companies are rolling out a major new marketing campaign to convince us their products are safe – rather than actually making their products safe. Read more about the industry's PR push.

Q: What can we do to get products that are safe for our families?

A: In the short term, you can choose safer products and learn more about the issue of cosmetics safety right here on our Web site and on EWG's Skin Deep site. But we can’t just shop our way out of this problem. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics believes that consumers should not have to memorize long lists of hazardous chemicals in order to protect our families.

Chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects do not belong in any beauty products, at any level. We should all be able to walk into any store and buy health and beauty products that are safe for babies and safe for everyone. Cancer is an epidemic in our society: in the United States, 1 in 2 men, and 1 in 3 women will get cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. Companies must be required to eliminate cancer-causing chemicals from all possible sources immediately – starting with baby shampoo and bubble bath. You can help by writing a letter to companies and the government through our online action center.

Q. So what can I do?

A. From the personal the political, here’s what you can do:

  • Join the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics! Sign up for updates, write to companies and join our action network. Together we can make over the cosmetics industry and make ourselves and our families safer.
  • Choose safer products now. Visit our partner Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, the world’s largest searchable database of ingredients in cosmetics. Find out if your favorite products contain hazardous chemicals, find safer alternatives and search for Compact signers’ products in Skin Deep. You can also find a list of Compact signers on our Web site.
  • Tell your cosmetics companies you want safe products. Contact the companies that have not signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. Call them, write them or e-mail them to let them know you want safe products now! Look on product packaging for a customer service hotline or Web site. For a list of the customer support phone numbers for L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Procter & Gamble, Revlon and Avon, read our brochure, "Unmasked."
  • Contact your elected officials and tell them you want to see state- and federal-level action to make all cosmetics free of carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, and other chemicals linked to health problems or chemicals that have never been tested for long term effects. Some states already have pending legislation on cosmetics ingredients. Find out if yours is one of them!