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Exposing the Cosmetics Cover-up

EWG's Investigative Series on the Cosmetics Industry and Products

October 10, 2013

Exposing the Cosmetics Cover-up: Toxic Chemicals Threaten Healthy Births

By Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs and Nneka Leiba, Deputy Director of Research

For years, obstetricians and gynecologists have warned pregnant women to avoid everything from tobacco and caffeine to high heels.

Now, it appears, they will begin alerting them about something else: toxic chemicals in their cosmetics and other products.

As EWG has reported for more than a decade, many chemicals found in personal care products have the potential to hinder people’s ability to reproduce, to interfere with pregnancies and to cause birth defects. 

And recently, citing scientific evidence accumulated over the last 15 years, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine have urged doctors to warn their patients that exposure to toxic chemicals before conception and during pregnancy can have significant and long-lasting effects on reproductive health.  

The medical groups’ conclusions align with EWG’s research, which has determined that reproductive health problems linked to toxic chemicals in cosmetics and other personal care products include:

  • Infertility
  • Low birth weight
  • Preterm birth
  • Cancers
  • Birth defects

For example, in 2005, scientists at the University of Rochester reported that prenatal exposure to phthalates —plasticizers commonly used in personal care products — was linked to abnormal reproductive development in baby boys. Despite these findings phthalates are still used in cosmetic products, including some nail polishes and “fragrance” mixtures.

Another group of troublesome ingredients oftem found in personal care products from moisturizers to toothpaste are parabens. Studies indicate they can mimic the hormone estrogen and interfere with the normal function of the hormone system.

Although dangerous chemicals are sometimes found in food, pregnant women are more likely to smear chemicals on their bodies than on their bagels.

According to an EWG survey, an average woman uses about twelve personal care products each day, exposing herself to about 168 unique chemicals. These products don’t always remain on the skin’s surface. Many cosmetics ingredients penetrate the skin.  Scientists have found ingredients such as phthalates and fragrance components in human tissues.  

Most cosmetics are not subject to any meaningful regulation.  EWG is trying to change that.  But powerful cosmetics houses are fighting efforts to give the federal Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate chemicals in cosmetics.  They say they conduct their own “safety” reviews, but they do not have to share them with the FDA. What’s more, the FDA does not have the resources or legal authority to conduct its own safety reviews or to compel studies by cosmetic companies.

As the medical groups have pointed out in their joint statement, “Preconception and prenatal exposure to toxic environmental agents can have a profound and lasting effect on reproductive health across the life course…. Because of deficiencies in the current regulatory structure, unlike pharmaceuticals, most environmental chemicals have entered the marketplace without comprehensive and standardized information regarding their reproductive or other long-term toxic effect.”

Among the major companies that persist in using potentially ingredients despite mounting evidence of their dangers are L’Oreal and Revlon.  They produce and sell a number of personal care products made with hazardous parabens. For example, L’Oreal’s Revitalift Cream Cleanser and Revlon’s Colorsilk line of hair colors contain at least one paraben.


An industry-financed review system called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review has rubber-stamped thousands of chemicals and has rejected only 11 ingredients as unsafe for use in personal care products. By contrast, European regulators have banned hundreds of chemicals in cosmetics. Nevertheless, U.S. companies have been allowed to use Cosmetic Ingredient Review “studies” to substantiate the “safety” of their ingredients.

As EWG’s Heather White pointed out in her recent article,  “Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Heads,” the American Chemistry Council has cynically attacked the doctors’ statement on chemicals dangers, claiming it will sow "confusion and alarm among expectant mothers."  Pregnant women need better than this condescending public relations tactic.  They deserve to be confident that their personal care products won’t endanger their reproductive health.