First cigarettes, then potato chips. Now your hand lotion, toothpaste, and shaving gel might soon flaunt a warning label.
Shoppers should know that one-third of cosmetics contain iffy and maybe cancer-causing junk, the FDA said in February. If the agency sticks to its guns, then the 99 percent of all personal care potions that contain even a single mystery ingredient may have to blare: "Warning: The safety of this product has not been determined."
While you wonder if the sunscreen you're basting in caused lab rats to grow tumors and slowly rot, look it up in the new SafeCosmetics.org database. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group rates products with safety scores from one to a red-flag five. My Avalon lavender hand lotion gets a safe 1.3 score (left), while Vaseline Intensive Care lotion (right), gets a murky 4.2. That Avalon lotion might be a candidate for the green "USDA Organic" label, whose ups and downs the New York Times describes today.
There's been little regulation of the chemical cocktails within personal care products, such as the hormone disrupters inside Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo, which I pick on. Until lately, the FDA has largely ignored the "C" in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act since the law passed in 1938. Fair labeling standards were set up in 1966, but have really only applied to drugs and food. As the Ecologist's Pat Thomas puts it:
On average, we each use nine personal care products a day containing 126 different ingredients. Such "safety" testing as exists looks for reactions, such as skin redness, rashes or stinging, but does not investigate potential long-term problems for either humans or the environment. Yet the chemicals that go into products such as shampoos and hand creams are not trace contaminants. They are the basic ingredients.
Cosmetics companies complain of unfounded hysteria, but scientists are finding industrial plasticisers such as phthalates in urine, preservatives known as parabens in breast-tumour tissue, and antibacterials such as Triclosan and fragrance chemicals like the hormone-disrupting musk xylene in human breast milk. Medical research is proving that fragrances can trigger asthma; that the detergents in shampoos can damage eye tissue; and that hair-dye chemicals can cause bladder cancer and lymphoma…If these problems had been linked to pharmaceutical drugs, the products would have been taken off the market.