May 6, 2010

MAINE COMPASS: That’s a killer look

Hazardous chemicals abound unchecked in personal-care products

I am 21 years old, and I hope to have children someday. I should not have to worry that ingredients in my shampoo will put me at risk for infertility, or that my sunscreen is linked to increased rates of birth defects. But I, like all Americans, am an involuntary lab rat in chemical experiments that put our health and our future at risk.

There is currently no law mandating safety testing for chemicals in personal-care products, such as shampoos and lotions, despite the fact that we spread these items on our skin, rub them into our hair and inhale their fumes.

A recent study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in 75 percent of lipsticks, and formaldehyde, a toxic chemical linked to cancer and hormone disruption, in 82 percent of top-selling baby shampoos. And these are only two of many hazardous ingredients.

Most of us are exposed to more than 100 chemicals from cosmetics every day, including substances that are known to cause cancer, early puberty, impaired fertility or infertility, developmental and learning disabilities, and hormone disruption.

The effects of toxic substances can surface generations after initial exposure, meaning the repercussions of this problem may be far greater than we can even imagine.

This year, I have been working with WATCH (Women Against Toxic Cosmetics Harm), a group of concerned young women at Colby and Unity colleges and Waterville High School, to push for safer personal-care products and greater accountability by the cosmetics industry. The Maine Women's Lobby has provided financial and other forms of assistance.

In February, we gathered 12 common personal-care products sold by well-known companies and sent them to an analytical testing laboratory, where they were examined for toxic ingredients.

The results of these tests were striking. Of the 12 products, 10 contained one or more chemicals that have been banned or restricted elsewhere in the world, are known carcinogens or are linked to reproductive problems.

Formaldehyde was found in three of the products, including one that was specifically labeled “formaldehyde-free,” and two of the products contained detectable levels of phthalates.

Phthalates are used frequently in personal-care products, especially those like nail polish and hair spray that are marketed to teenagers and young women.

Phthalates are suspected in contributing to reproductive problems. According to the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance, pregnant women who work in nail salons have higher rates of miscarriage, which may be linked to the many chemicals to which they are exposed.

The European Union, Canada, Japan and Mexico have banned or restricted phthalate use in the interest of protecting public health, but these highly toxic substances remain completely unregulated in the United States.

Furthermore, phthalates in personal-care products are difficult or impossible to avoid. On lists of ingredients, they often are given the innocuous-sounding label of  “fragrance.”

Apart from certain colorants, cosmetics are completely unregulated, which means that consumers do not have the tools to make informed decisions about their own safety. And because there are no standards for testing and labeling, products marketed as “natural” or “organic” may be just as toxic as their mainstream competitors.

Currently, the best method I know of to determine the safety of a product and its ingredients is through the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website (

We shouldn’t have to rely on this type of independent, after-market approach that not everyone can know about or access. We should be able to buy personal-care products off the shelf and trust that they will not cause harm to our bodies.

The state of Maine has shown itself to be a leader in responsible chemical reform, with groundbreaking laws, such as the Kid-Safe Products Act, that emphasize the protection of human health. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is compiling a list of priority chemicals that manufacturers will be required to disclose. It’s extremely important that substances used in personal-care products be included on that list.

On the national level, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced a bill called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, which is an invaluable opportunity for reform to ensure consumer products are safe for human health.

I urge all concerned Mainers to call Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and express their support for this bill.

Our health, and the health of our families, is the most important thing we have. It needs to be protected.

Blair Braverman, of Davis, Calif., is a student at Colby College in Waterville, class of 2011. An environmental policy major, she is interested in environmental justice, health and toxicology.

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