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Being Clean and Pretty Has Toxic Costs

Monday, July 26, 2010

Special to Enviroblog by Nena Baker, author of "The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Wellbeing"

This morning I relied on a dozen grooming and beauty products to help me face the day.

I used soap, shampoo and conditioner in the shower, and gel and mousse when I dried my hair. I slathered on moisturizer and dabbed my face with sunscreen. I applied foundation, blush and eye shadow. I rolled on deodorant. And I used toothpaste, of course, when I brushed my teeth.

Adults in the United States use an average of 10 personal-care products a day. That translates to exposures to more than 126 unique chemicals, not counting the untold number of chemicals used in any "fragrance" listed on a label, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

While some of these chemicals are perfectly safe, others may cause cancer, and problems with brain development and reproduction. This worrisome situation is why three Congressional Democrats -- Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin -- introduced on the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 on July 21.

The bill aims to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to ensure cosmetics and personal-care products are free from harmful ingredients -- authority most Americans probably believe the agency already has.

Yet, under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the FDA can't require cosmetics and personal-care companies to substantiate product safety and performance claims. In fact, the FDA can't even require beauty-products makers to register their operations or products, though some do it voluntarily. Indeed, the FDA's legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products it regulates, such as drugs and medical devices, in that cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to pre-market approval (with the exception of color additives).

While the FDA's mandate when it comes to cosmetics and personal-care products is to ensure that these products are safe, it does not have the statutory power or the resources to complete this important public-health mission.

I was shocked when I learned, through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted while I was writing The Body Toxic, that only 30 employees worked in the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, which oversees the $60 billion annual U.S. cosmetics business. The office's annual budget of $3.4 million had not increased in some two decades, and did not include funding for safety assessments.

"From lipstick to lotion, our medicine cabinets are filled with cosmetics that may contain potentially dangerous chemicals," said Sen. Markey. "This important bill closes a gaping hole in our federal laws that allows potentially dangerous chemicals to remain in the cosmetic products we use every day."

Even the Personal Care Products Council, the industry's leading trade association and lobbying group, acknowledges the regulatory landscape needs updating. It has lobbied for the last several years to obtain additional funding for FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, said Lezlee Westine, president and CEO.

Predictably, though, the industry does not support the Safe Cosmetics Act as written. And if history is an indicator, it can be expected to fight -- gleaming tooth and polished nail -- against regulatory reforms that would truly give the FDA the broader authority it needs to protect the public.

Nevertheless, as we learn about cancer-causing chemicals in baby shampoo, hormone disruptors in fragrance and lead in lipstick, it becomes hard to accept the lack of safety requirements that gives manufacturers leeway to put harmful ingredients into beauty and personal-care products.

If the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 becomes law, we won't have to.

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post.

You can get a copy of The Body Toxic on Amazon. It's a very worthwhile read.

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