Pretty scary

There’s more to cosmetics than meets the eye

That ruby lipstick you adore may be tainted with lead, according to a national coalition co-founded by Missoula nonprofit Women’s Voices for the Earth.

On Oct. 11, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released results from tests of 33 brand-name red lipsticks that found 61 percent contained detectable levels of lead, and in one-third of products the amount of lead found exceeded 0.1 parts per million (ppm), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) limit for lead in candy. That standard is used for comparison since the FDA doesn’t regulate lead and other toxic chemicals found in the thousands of cosmetics that Americans dab, brush and smear on themselves each day.

Among the top brands testing positive for lead were: L’Oreal’s Colour Riche “True Red,” with 0.65 ppm, Cover Girl Incredifull Lipcolor “Maximum Red,” with 0.56 ppm, and Dior Addict “Positive Red,” with 0.21 ppm. The cosmetics industry played down the campaign’s findings, with John Bailey of the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association pointing out, “Lead is found naturally in air, water, and soil. Consequently, lead may also be found at extremely low levels in the raw ingredients used in formulating cosmetics.” But on Oct. 12, the FDA announced it would look into the claims made by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to confirm their findings and determine whether action is warranted.

Leaded lipstick constitutes just one example of the beauty industry’s toxic secrets, and consumers—especially women, who purchase and use most of the copious cosmetics products found on store shelves—need to know what they’re putting on their bodies, argues Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Malkan says the FDA needs to rein in the $35 billion cosmetics industry and prevent harmful chemicals from showing up in beauty products in the first place.

Malkan, the author of a new book titled Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, will speak in Missoula on Nov. 1. Event coordinator Melissa Picoli, a volunteer for Women’s Voices for the Earth, says the panel discussion will also feature scientists explaining the effects of chemicals and toxins in cosmetics, and offer perspective from beauty companies that have reformulated their products to make them safer.

In Not Just a Pretty Face, Malkan chronicles efforts by Women’s Voices for the Earth and other national environmental groups to launch the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Besides pressuring companies to clean up their products, the campaign also aims to educate consumers who don’t realize the American cosmetics industry is essentially unregulated. Unlike drugs, cosmetic products and their ingredients aren’t inspected or approved by the FDA, leaving beauty companies responsible for the safety of their products. But according to Malkan, the industry’s self-policing safety panel has assessed only 13 percent of the 10,000-plus ingredients used in personal care products. Considering that the average American woman uses a dozen products containing 168 chemical ingredients each day—men use less, an average of six products containing 85 chemicals—there’s ample opportunity for repeated exposure to harmful chemicals.

In 2005, the Campaign launched an unprecedented online database called Skin Deep that tracks and scores toxicity in thousands of personal care products. The searchable database, found at, now includes 25,000 products, about a quarter of personal care products on the market. Essentially, it helps translate the indecipherable names of cosmetics ingredients into meaningful information. In total, according to Malkan, the database found that one-third of personal care products contain at least one ingredient linked to cancer; 45 percent of products contain ingredients that may be harmful to the reproductive system or a baby’s development; and 60 percent of products contain chemicals that can act like estrogen or disrupt hormones in the body. Malkan also points out that while chemicals may appear in small quantities in these products, repeated use increases people’s exposure and the use of multiple products presents the risk of pooled effects.

“Little bits of carcinogen add up,” Malkan says in an interview. “We’re concerned about the repeated exposure to so many toxic chemicals on a daily basis.”

Besides exposing potentially harmful chemicals in everyday beauty products, the Campaign also suggests alternatives for consumers. More than 500 companies have signed on to the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, pledging to eliminate toxic ingredients from their products, although the world’s major companies such as L’Oreal, Revlon and Proctor & Gamble remain conspicuously absent from the list.

Ultimately though, Malkan and others are pushing for increased federal oversight of the cosmetics industry. While the FDA has banned the use of 10 chemicals in cosmetics, the European Union in 2003 banned the use of some 1,100 chemicals suspected of causing cancer, mutation and birth defects. Since then, companies have reformulated the products sold in the EU, but still sell their unchanged formulas to American customers.

“Europeans have safer products and it’s outrageous we have lower standards in the U.S.,” Malkan says.

Once consumers realize no one’s ensuring the safety of products they apply to their bodies each day—and when specific hazards like leaded lipstick come to light—Malkan hopes federal regulators and the cosmetics industry and will be forced to respond.

Women’s Voices for the Earth presents author Stacy Malkan and others on Thursday, Nov. 1, at 7 PM in the North Underground Lecture Hall on the UM campus. Call 543-3747 for more information.

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