Labeling Cosmetics May Help Prevent Cancers

CHICAGO, Illinois, August 15, 2002 (ENS) - It's a right to know issue. Women who are sensitive to chemicals should have the benefit of warning labels on their cosmetics identifying those chemicals, say six environmental groups and Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition.

One of the groups, the Environmental Health Network of California, is petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking for warning labels on cosmetics to identify allergens and hazardous substances contained in the hair spray, deodorant, nail polish and perfume that many women use every day.


Vintage French cosmetics advertising art poster for women's facial powder
Dr. Epstein says the labels are especially important for phthalates (pronounced tha-lates) in perfumes and fragrances, to which about 12 percent of the population, are sensitive.

The fragrance industry uses phthalates to make scents evaporate more slowly, "Phthalates in fragrances make the scent last longer," the American Chemistry Council wrote July 10 in "Phthalates and Your Health."

Besides some 20 allergens, cosmetics and toiletries contain other numerous hazardous ingredients, says Dr. Epstein. "These include about 100 carcinogens and 15 endocrine hormonal disruptors."

The American Chemistry Council denies the use of chemicals in cosmetics can hurt people. "Phthalates are among the most widely studied materials in the world and have been researched and tested for more than 50 years," a council statement said.


Dr. Samuel S. Epstein is professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine in the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health. (Photo courtesy Office of the Professor)
Dr. Epstein sees user friendly labels on cosmetics as a tool to encourage the prevention of cancer by educating buyers to selecting products that are more benign.

"Consumers could reduce their avoidable risks of cancer and other disease by shunning unsafe cosmetic products and shopping for safer alternatives," he says. "While currently limited, their availability will rapidly increase with increasing demand; this is well exemplified by the organic food industry."

In May, Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a bill (S.2499) that would require user friendly food label warnings of allergens, to which about seven percent of the population are sensitive.

Dr. Epstein suggests that cosmetics are even more deserving of warning labels since the hazardous ingredients pose risks of cancer, genetic damage and reproductive toxicity, including infertility, "to virtually the entire U.S. population of unsuspecting consumers, and their infants and children."

The risks are high, says Dr. Epstein, due to the "virtual lifelong use" of many cosmetic products such as shampoos and lotions, their "routine daily application to large areas of skin," and "the ready skin absorption of some ingredients."

Most troubling are the way the various chemical interact, described by Dr. Epstein as "the additive or synergistic interactions between multiple carcinogenic or otherwise toxic ingredients."

Women's Voices for the Earth, one of the groups endorsing the call for warning labels, says shoppers have little to guide them as they try to avoid chemical effects from using cosmetics. "Good luck trying to avoid products that contain phthalates, and don't forget your magnifying glass. Labeling requirements are so lax that many containers list the ingredients inside the sealed package in font fit for a flea - and many don't list the culprit at all."


Cosmetics and fragrences for sale. (Photo credit unknown)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for the safety of cosmetics, does not require label warnings on the risks of cosmetic ingredients. The agency does require a listing of the complex chemical names or their abbreviations of the 10 to 20 ingredients on product labels.

Dr. Epstein says that this labeling failure "violates the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act" which mandates that "each ingredient used in a cosmetic product - shall be adequately substantiated for safety prior to marketing." This law authorizes FDA to recall and seize unsafe products.

The act under which the FDA operates makes a distinction between cosmetics, which are intended to "cleanse, beautify or promote attractiveness," and drugs, which are defined as "agents that treat disease or affect the structure or any function of the human body." The law does not mandate pre-market approval for cosmetics, but does mandate pre-market approval of the safety and effectiveness of drugs.

The FDA does consider all products that make sunscreen claims to be drugs, including cosmetics such as lipsticks and shampoos, and the agency requires warning labels indicating the strength of these products' ability to block harmful solar rays.

Commenting on an FDA survey released earlier this year that turned up higher than expected levels of phthalates in the blood of women 20 to 40 years old, an FDA official who asked not to be named told Reuters, "the use of phthalates is ubiquitous."

Fragrances and perfumes are exempt from FDA listing requirements, on grounds of trade secrecy, a position Dr. Epstein can understand. But in the interest of public health and cancer prevention, he urges that the cosmetics industry be required to disclose their ingredients to the FDA and certify them as free from toxic ingredients.

As a variety of products is used by a single person, complicating factors come into play, that Dr. Epstein calls "hidden" carcinogens. "These include those contaminating non-carcinogenic ingredients, those formed in the product or skin by the breakdown of non-carcinogenic ingredients, and those formed by the chemical interaction between ingredients or contaminants," he says.

One of the six supporting groups is the Environmental Health Network of California (EHN). They filed a petition with the FDA to require warning labels on fragrance products in May 1999.

The Environmental Health Network says the petition was filed "on behalf of everyone who feels We The People have a right to know about the superfluous toxins in our synthetic fragrances."

The docket on their petition is still open for public comment, the FDA has been told the Environmental Health Network.

People are advised to report to the Food and Drug Administration their adverse reactions - first, second or thirdhand - to synthetic scents." Those who yet to suffer adverse effects, but want effective labeling, can also contact the FDA, referencing Docket Number: 99P-1340.

The group says it is best to chose one mode of comment - either letter or fax or email. Letters may be faxed to the FDA at: 301-827-6870. The email address is:

Letters may be mailed to: Dockets Management Branch, The Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, Rm. 1-23, 12420 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, Maryland 20857.

Several other groups have taken up this issue. Health Care Without Harm, a coalition of health, religious, labor, and environmental groups, has been lobbying against phthalates for years. Its website Not Too Pretty, makes the case against these chemicals.


Nail polish (Photo credit unknown)
The group, along with the Coming Clean coalition and the Environmental Working Group, commissioned a test of 72 products, including lotion, nail polish, and deodorant. When findings were released in July, 52 products had tested positive for phthalates.

"Chemicals that can damage the development and future fertility of babies don't belong in products marketed to women," the group's Bryony Schwan told reporters.

Schwan, who is also national campaigns director for Women's Voices for the Earth, says, "Phthalate-free products that perform as well are on the market for virtually every single phthalate-containing product."

Supporters include regional organizations such as the Oregon Toxics Alliance, a statewide grassroots organization, that supports citizens' efforts to avert the dangers of toxics use in their communities.

The California based Center for Environmental Health works to protect the public from environmental and consumer health hazards through education, litigation, and advocacy.

The North Carolina based Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, a regional, community based, nonprofit considers the cosmetics labeling issue fits into members concerns about focused on earth stewardship, environmental democracy, social justice, and community empowerment.

To find out more about how to prevent cancer, visit the Cancer Prevention Coalition at: