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January 2005
Beauty and the Beast: Activists Work for Safer Cosmetics
By Brenda Salgado

These days, you may find me avidly studying the labels of products in my home or the local natural foods store. As a biologist, activist, and hopefully future mom, what I put in and on my body is of increasing concern to me. Most consumers would be surprised to learn the U.S. government does not require health studies or tests of cosmetics before they go to market.

So who regulates cosmetics? The Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, an industry committee, oversees the toxicity of ingredients in personal care products. Because testing is voluntary and controlled by the manufacturers, many ingredients in cosmetics are not safety-tested at all.

To help educate consumers, Breast Cancer Action (BCA)’s Think Before You Pink campaign reveals that many cosmetics contain phthalates and parabens even though they are known or suspected reproductive or developmental toxins. Phthalates can be found in nail polish, perfumes, lotions, and solvents. Parabens are chemical preservatives found in nearly all personal care products.

The cosmetics industry is quick to point out that any one chemical is unlikely to cause harm. On a daily basis, however, we are exposed to scores of chemicals from many sources, including personal care and household products, food, pesticides, air, water, and even medical products. Science is just starting to look at the cumulative effects of multiple chemical exposures, which may be more damaging than on an individual basis.

Both the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Environment California released reports in June detailing everyday exposures to dangerous chemicals. EWG’s report, “Skin Deep,” investigates toxins in personal care products. A number of the products studied were found to contain ingredients certified by the FDA as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens.

Chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects do not belong in our personal care products. Period. Activists throughout California, across the U.S., and around the world have championed victories on the chemicals-in-cosmetics front.

In January 2003, the European parliament prohibited the use of chemicals that cause cancer or mutagenic or reproductive harm from use in cosmetics. Manufacturers are already reformulating cosmetics for the European market, where these chemicals have been taken entirely off the shelves as of September 2004. Unfortunately, these same manufacturers have not pledged to sell the safer formulations in the U.S., largely because they are not required to do so.

Thanks to activist efforts, however, Estée Lauder announced plans to eliminate phthalates from its MAC and Clinique nail polish lines, and Procter & Gamble promised to remove them from its Max Factor and Cover Girl nail polish lines.

Industry leader Avon has also pledged to remove one phthalate (dibutyl phthalate or DBP) from its nail polishes in response to pressure from Follow the Money: An Alliance for Accountability in Breast Cancer (a coalition of which BCA is a member group). BCA holds one share of stock in Avon and has led successful shareholder activism efforts in conjunction with Trillium Asset Management, Domini Social Investment, and Walden Asset Management. At the past two annual shareholders meetings, BCA and its allies have submitted resolutions regarding phthalates and parabens. Days before this year’s meeting in May, Avon announced its plans to phase out the use of DBP.

California Assemblymember Judy Chu has introduced legislation (AB 2012) that will require full ingredient disclosure of all cosmetics chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. It will also prohibit certain phthalates in personal care products.

Though these safeguards may seem sensible and logical, the collective strength of many is needed to achieve them. Together we can make our voices heard. After all, our health depends on it.

Brenda Salgado is the Program Manager at Breast Cancer Action ( and holds degrees in biology, developmental psychology, and animal behavior. This is an edited reprint from the BCA Newsletter #82, July/August 2004.


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