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ENVIRONMENT | summer 2006

Is Your Lipstick Safe?
A new California law promises women the truth about personal-care products

That lipstick or nail polish you may be wearing—are they a danger to your health? How about your deodorant, toothpaste, body lotion, soap?

Seemingly innocuous personal-care products contain a host of largely unregulated chemicals and toxic ingredients. Some of those chemicals— phthalates, formaldehyde, petroleum, parabens, benzene and lead—have been variously linked to breast cancer, endometriosis, reproductive disorders, birth defects and developmental disabilities in children.

Women and girls should be particularly concerned, as our bodies are uniquely susceptible to certain environmental chemicals. Women have a greater percentage of fat in comparison to men, so fat-soluble chemicals such as parabens and toluene tend to be more readily absorbed and fatty breast tissue can be a long-term storage site for some of the more persistent toxic chemicals. Hormones also play a role: Synthetic chemicals such as alkylphenols (found in some detergents) and bisphenol A (found in hard plastics) can mimic natural estrogens in the body—and excess estrogen can play a role in the development of breast cancer. Childbearing women may also pass toxins to fetuses in utero or to newborns when breastfeeding.

But U.S. consumers are left in the dark about vital safety information: Cosmetic companies are not required to label many of their products’ ingredients, and the Food and Drug Administration does not mandate premarket safety testing of those ingredients.

And that’s why the California Safe Cosmetics Act is such a landmark achievement.

Signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last October and taking effect in 2007, it requires manufacturers to disclose product ingredients found on state or federal lists of chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects. The law further authorizes the state to investigate the health impacts of chemicals in cosmetics, and requires manufacturers to supply health-related information about their ingredients. Finally, the act enables the state to regulate products in order to assure the safety of salon workers.

California is the first state in the nation to pass such legislation, thus serving as a model for the other 49. “This is an important disclosure bill, and an important victory for women’s health,” says Jeanne Rizzo of the Breast Cancer Fund. “California has set the stage for states to assert regulatory authority around toxic chemicals in cosmetics, which the federal government has thus far refused to lead on.”

Adds California state Sen. Carole Migden, who championed the legislation, “It is beyond belief that consumers are not being told whether or not they are putting carcinogens on their skin, in their hair or on their face. [The law] represents a triumph of grassroots efforts over money and power. Even in the face of a multinationally funded lobbying machine, common sense and the public good prevailed.”

While many known toxic components have been banned in Europe from use in personal-care products, similar ingredients remain legal in products marketed to the American public. Currently, the FDA does not review the ingredients in cosmetic and beauty-care products, but instead relies on self-regulation by the cosmetic industry’s own Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel. According to the watchdog Environmental Working Group, only 11 percent of the 10,500-plus ingredients that the FDA has documented in personal-care products have been assessed for safety by the CIR panel.

In response to the lack of government oversight, an international Campaign for Safe Cosmetics was initiated in 2002 to pressure the personal-care industry to phase out known toxic ingredients and replace them with safer alternatives. Manufacturers have been encouraged to sign the “Compact for Safe Cosmetics,” and to date more than 300 have done so, including The Body Shop, Burt’s Bees and Aubrey Organics.

Migden authored the California Safe Cosmetics Act (S.B. 484) in 2004, with co-sponsorship by Breast Cancer Action, Breast Cancer Fund and the National Environmental Trust. They joined with other public-health, environmental, consumer, Asian Pacific Islander, teen and faith-based groups in a yearlong organizing and lobbying campaign—which met aggressive opposition from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association. The industry group spent more than $600,000 trying to defeat the bill, even going so far as to host a website (www.cosmeticsaresafe.org) to capture searchers looking for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In contradiction to a growing body of science, the website claims that the personal-care products sold in California are the safest in the world.

Julia Liou, of Oakland-based Asian Health Services, advocated particularly for provisions in the bill designed to protect the safety of nail-salon and cosmetology workers. “We realize that Asian nail-salon workers and owners are not fully aware of the long-term health risks facing their sector,” says Liou. Currently, of the more than 83,500 manicurists in California, 80 percent are of Vietnamese descent, more than half of whom are of reproductive age.

Nail-salon and cosmetology workers handle solvents, chemical solutions and glues on a daily basis, yet little research has been conducted on the chronic health effects of such exposures. There is also a dearth of cul turally and linguistically appropriate educational materials to build awareness about environmental exposures and help workers and salon owners implement safety precautions.

Most of the Vietnamese salon workers earn less than $15,700 a year, speak limited English and lack health coverage. Their voices went largely unheard in the safe-cosmetics debate, and some salon owners actually came out against the bill—“based on misinformation and fear about how it might impact small immigrant-owned businesses,” says Liou. “So it is important for us to work with salon workers and owners in a way that empowers them to be leaders and advocates themselves.” In an effort to do so, the California Healthy Nail Salons Collaborative was formed, and now advocates for greater work-place safety, protective policies, research and community education.

The passage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act sets the stage for further advocacy around cosmetic safety, occupational exposures and chemical policy reform. Those who fought to pass it are now working to ensure its adequate funding and enforcement, and hope to see it replicated in other states.

For more information, visit: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics; California Health Nail Salons Collaborative, jliou@ahschc.org; Skin Deep, a database of the Environmental Working Group providing a safety assessment of personal-care product ingredients. To access the California Safe Cosmetics Act: www.leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.html.

Anuja Mendiratta is a senior program officer with the Women’s Foundation of California and on the steering committee of the California Health Nail Salons Collaborative; she is also a freelance writer.