Remember that old joke, “Hey, your epidermis is showing?” It was funny because your stupid friends didn’t know that epidermis means skin. Well, the cosmetics industry has come up with a gallows-humor version: “Hey, you’ve got phthalates in your body.” The difference is that the cosmetics industry hasn’t been forthcoming with the punch line—that phthalates have been found to cause serious medical problems such as birth defects.
The Missoula environmental group Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) doesn’t appreciate the industry’s silence on phthalates and has mounted a national awareness campaign called “Not Too Pretty.” The goal is to force cosmetics companies to label products containing the dangerous chemicals and to eventually phase out their use.
“We don’t expect the FDA under the Bush administration to do anything about this,” says WVE national campaigns director Bryony Schwan, who (dis)credits the Food and Drug Administration with rolling back safety measures. “But we do expect the manufacturers to do something about this because the same companies that do make products with phthalates, make the same products without phthalates.”
The detection of the chemical began in 2000 when a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that of 289 people tested, all had phthalates under their skin, with the highest concentrations being found in women between the ages of 20 and 40. These peculiar findings led a coalition of environmental groups, including WVE, to investigate how phthalates found their way into so many women’s systems.
“When we saw the numbers on phthalates and the fact that they were so high in women, that’s when we got really concerned,” says Schwan.
WVE, working with other environmental groups, discovered that phthalates are widely used in cosmetics. Of the 72 different over-the-counter products they tested, phthalates were found in nearly three-quarters of them—including deodorants, hair sprays, lotions, nail polish and every perfume scrutinized. The mystery was solved—now all WVE and the other groups had to do was figure out how to get phthalates out of the products—thus the national campaign.
After costly full-page ads in The New York Times and the Washington Post, the campaign looks likes it’s paying off. The Body Shop and others have decided to cease producing items containing phthalates. Now, Schwan is going after big fish Procter & Gamble, Revlon and Estée Lauder, but as of yet the companies have not responded to Schwan’s invitation to meet.
With more than 5 million hits on the Not Too Pretty Web site (nottoopretty.org) and thousands of angry e-mails sent to the non-compliant cosmetics companies, Schwan says she’s confident the companies will get the message, and no one won’t know what phthalates are ever again.