By Courtney Helgoe, Experience Life
Of all the personal-care products sold in the United States, 99 percent of the chemical ingredients have never been tested for safety, despite research showing long-term health risks (including melanoma, breast cancer, and fertility challenges) associated with some of these compounds.
With a little knowledge and some label decoding, we can all get smart about what we put on our skin, minimizing our risks before problems arise and enjoying better peace of mind in the process. But first, we have to understand why so many of the products we’ve long assumed to be safe might not be.
The U.S. government has an extensive inspection and regulatory system, operated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), designed to protect consumers from tainted food, so it’s natural to assume a similar system exists to monitor body-care products. But, in fact, the government essentially allows the cosmetics industry to police itself.
It’s left up to an industry trade group called the Personal Care Product Council (PCPC), which claims that its research branch, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, is every bit as thorough as any government regulatory agency.
This type of industry oversight wasn’t nearly enough to appease the European Union. In 2004, it banned 1,100 suspect ingredients from personal-care products, and because some of those ingredients were commonly used in U.S. goods, American manufacturers have had to scramble to reformulate many products destined for the European market.
The EU long ago adopted what’s known as the Precautionary Principle, which states that something must be considered potentially dangerous until it’s been proven safe. Here in the United States, our regulatory agencies have taken the opposite tack, preferring to assume that something can be considered safe as long as it’s not been proven dangerous.
There are, however, nonprofit organizations that have stepped into the regulatory breach. The watchdog group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics was formed in 2002 to monitor health risks in body-care products and has partnered with the Environmental Working Group, a respected Washington, D.C.–based research organization, to test common ingredients for their possible long-term effects. They discovered that 99 percent of the products on the market contain one or more ingredients that “have never been publicly assessed for safety.”
They also found that many common ingredients, like parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrance, were all likely culprits in a number of health problems, ranging from increased skin sensitivity and allergies to infertility, birth defects and cancer. (Read more in the article 7 ingredients to avoid.)
Meanwhile, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics maintains a searchable database called Skin Deep (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com), where consumers can find safety ratings for specific products and brands. With that tool and the willingness to weigh their own risks, consumers stand a much better chance of protecting themselves from problem ingredients.
Next: Why we’re actually more vulnerable to toxins on our skin than to those in our food