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Avoidable Exposures: Consumers

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Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Can be Cancer Risks

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Q. Aren't cosmetics regulated for dangerous chemicals?

A. Cosmetics are the least regulated products under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The FFDCA does not require pre-market safety testing, review, or approval for cosmetics. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pursues enforcement action only after the cosmetic enters into the stream of commerce or sometimes after it is on the shelf. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that 884 of the chemicals available for use in cosmetics have been reported to the government as toxic substances. A U. S. General Accounting Office report notes that the FDA has committed no resources for assessing the safety problems of those chemicals which have been found to cause genetic damage, biological mutations, and cancer. Because of minimal regulation, products plainly dangerous to your health can be, and are being, sold.

Q. Doesn't the cosmetic industry regulate itself to make sure products are safe?

A. FDA officials have found that many cosmetic manufacturers lack adequate data on safety tests and have generally refused to disclose the results of these tests. The FDA estimates that only three percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 cosmetic distributors have filed reports with the government on injuries to consumers. In addition, it is estimated that less than 40 percent of the nation's 2,000 to 2,500 cosmetic manufacturers are even registered.

Q. What evidence is there that people are being directly injured by cosmetics?

A. In 1990, there were some 38,000 cosmetic related injuries that required medical treatment in the U.S. That figure does not include the many people who use cosmetics and suffer from allergies, irritation, and photosensitization yet accept these uncomfortable complications as the normal cost of grooming. They never visit their doctor or a hospital emergency room, and they rarely connect their allergies or irritated eyes to the cosmetics they use.

Q. Why are humans so vulnerable to chemicals in cosmetics?

A. The skin is extremely permeable. Cosmetic ingredients most certainly are absorbed through the skin. Some chemicals may penetrate the skin in significant amounts, especially when left on the skin for long periods, as in the case of facial makeup. One study showed that 13 percent of the cosmetic preservative butylate hydroxytoluene (BHT) and 49 percent of the carcinogenic pesticide DDT (which is found in some cosmetics containing lanolin) is absorbed through the skin.

Q. What can be done to guard against hazardous cosmetics?

A. Choose cosmetics that contain the fewest ingredients; these are still effective. As the list of a product's ingredients grows, so does the possibility that it will cause adverse reactions, including allergy, irritation, and cancer. Handle all cosmetics in a way that prevents bacterial contamination. Do not leave product containers uncapped. Do not share them. Do not use your fingers instead of applicators.

Cancer Risks from Cosmetic and Personal Care Products

DIETHANOLAMINE (DEA), TEA (Triethanolamine)
DEA and TEA can result in the formation of carcinogens in products containing nitrite preservatives. Chemical reactions between nitrites and DEA/ TEA occur during the manufacturing process and while products are stored in their containers. This reaction leads to the formation of nitrosamines. Most nitrosamines, including those formed from DEA or TEA, are carcinogenic.

Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol) may break down in products into formaldehyde and also cause the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines under certain conditions. One of the most expensive lines of cosmetics, Chanel, often uses this chemical. So do many leading brands of baby products. As does the Body Shop, whose product sales are built on a reputation of containing natural ingredients.

1,2-Dioxane in Surfactants/detergents
A wide range of personal care products including shampoos, hair conditioners, cleansers, lotions, and creams, besides household products such as soaps and cleaning products, contain surfactants or detergents such as ethoxylated alcohols, polysorbates, and laureths. These ingredients are generally contaminated with high concentrations of the highly volatile 1,4 - dioxane, which is both readily inhaled and absorbed through the skin. The carcinogenicity of dioxane in rodents was first reported in 1965 and subsequently confirmed in other studies including by the National Cancer Institute in 1978; the predominant sites of cancer were nasal passages in rats and liver in mice. Epidemiological studies on dioxane-exposed furniture makers have reported suggestive evidence of excess nasal passage cancers. On the basis of such evidence, the Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded that "the presence of 1,4 - dioxane, even as a trace contaminant, is a cause of concern." These avoidable risks of cancer in numerous personal care, besides other consumer, products is inexcusable, particularly as the dioxane is readily removed from surfactants during their manufacture by a process known as "vacuum stripping."


Artificial Colors
Some artificial colors, such as Blue 1 and Green 3, are carcinogenic. Impurities found in commercial batches of other cosmetic colors such as D&C Red 33, FD&C Yellow 5, and FD&C yellow 6 have been shown to cause cancer not only when ingested, but also when applied to the skin. Some artificial coal tar colors contain heavy metal impurities, including arsenic and lead, which are carcinogenic.

Hair Dyes
The use of permanent or semi permanent hair color products, particularly black and dark brown colors, is associated with increased incidence of human cancer including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and Hodgkin's disease. There are several natural hair-coloring products which are relatively effective and safe.

Lanolin itself is perfectly safe. But cosmetic-grade lanolin can be contaminated with carcinogenic pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin, and lindane, in addition to other neurotoxic pesticides.

Cosmetic talc is carcinogenic. Inhaling talc and using it in the genital area, where its use is associated with increased risk of ovarian cancer, are the primary ways this substance poses a carcinogenic hazard.

Some silica used in cosmetics, especially amorphous hydrated silica, may be contaminated with small amounts of crystalline quartz. Crystalline silica is carcinogenic.

Reference: Steinman, David and Epstein, Samuel, The Safe Shopper's Bible, MacMillan: New York, 1995.


Endocrine Disruptive Chemicals

Hazardous Contaminants in Mainstream Cosmetics

Carcinogens in Cosmetics and Personal Products, press release

Federal Legislation on Cosmetics Requested by Citizens


Neways International is unique in certifying and labeling the surfactants in its personal care products as "dioxane-free," and thus sets an important precedent to the entire personal care products industry.   Neways products are also phthalate-free.


Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
c/o University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health, M/C 922
2121 W. Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60612


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