The next time you shop for your favourite shampoo and face cream or pick up a new shade of nail polish, just stop and reflect. You could be exposing yourself to harmful industrial chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.
Many personal care products used every day, including deodorants, aftershave lotions and cosmetics, contain chemicals that have been linked to breast cancer and birth defects. Worse still, it's perfectly legal for cosmetic companies to sell these products.
This is the alarming claim made by some environmental groups and activists at a recent world conference on breast cancer held in the Canadian coastal city of Halifax. Citing industry estimates, they say on any given day, an average consumer may use as many as 25 different cosmetic and personal care products containing more than 200 different chemical compounds.
Many of these chemicals have gotten into our bodies, our breast milk and our children and some of these chemicals are linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems that are on the rise in the human population, says Nancy Evans, health science consultant of the San Francisco-based environmental NGO, Breast Cancer Fund. "Some of these chemicals found in a variety of cosmetics - including phthalates, acrylamide, formaldehyde and ethylene oxide - are listed by the State of California as carcinogens or reproductive toxins," she observes.
According to a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), another US watchdog NGO, an astonishing one-third of all cosmetic products contain one or more ingredients such as coal tar, formaldehyde and lead acetate, all potentially linked to cancer. Key findings of the report made available at the conference reveal that of 7,500 personal care products studied, 54 products were found to violate recommendations for safe use set by the industry's self-regulating Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board.
One of every 100 products on the market (including shampoos, lotions, makeup foundations and lip balms manufactured by Almay, Neutrogena, Grecian Formula and others, according to the report) contains ingredients certified by the government authorities as known or probable human carcinogens.
Seventy-one hair dye products contain ingredients derived from carcinogenic coal tar, including products made by leading brands such as Clairol, Revlon, L'Oreal and others, the report alleges. These products have all been granted a specific exemption from federal rules that deem products to be adulterated when they contain ingredients that can harm human health.
Evans strongly feels that the absence of strict government regulation for this industry leads to companies routinely marketing products with ingredients that are poorly studied, not studied at all, or worse, known to pose potentially serious health risks.
In its 67-year history of monitoring cosmetic safety, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned or restricted just nine personal care product ingredients, she points out. By contrast, Evans praises the regulatory efforts initiated in the European Union (EU) where, she says, 450 ingredients are banned for use in cosmetics.
Evans and other activists at the fourth World Conference on Breast Cancer -- held in June this year -- expressed serious concern that workers in nail and beauty salons are on the front lines of exposure to hazardous chemicals in beauty care products as they handle a variety of substances on a daily basis. More worrying is the fact that majority of these workers and their customers are female; and for a pregnant woman, chemicals linked to birth defects can present a variety of health hazards to their unborn child.
Sue McLeod, a breast cancer survivor and health professional from New Zealand, observes that since the petrochemical era of the 1930s, the incidence of breast cancer has risen from 1.0 in 50 women to 1.0 in 8.0 by 2000. Describing breast cancer as a modern global environment epidemic, she has been campaigning in her small township of Kerkeri for more awareness about the links between pesticides and synthetic cosmetics to breast cancer.
"Our skin is our largest organ and it is very responsive to the environment," she says. All synthetic chemical-derived cosmetics - including shampoos, antiperspirants, lipsticks and perfumes - contain preservatives and sterilising chemicals. Chemicals like formaldehyde are carcinogenic and others like Parabans stop enzyme activity in the product to prevent spoiling.
"This preservative action continues on the skin, is absorbed into skin tissue and taken up by the blood stream. Parabans effectively limit the normal enzyme activity of the body, thus creating cellular problems," she argues.
In a presentation titled, "Stop Breast Cancer Where it Starts", at the Halifax meet, McLeod advocates nature skincare cosmetics which use natural plant material to maintain the life of the product.
The conference was organised by the World Conference on Breast Cancer Foundation, a Canadian NGO, which is committed to advancing global action on breast cancer through presentations at international meetings and by ongoing cooperation with, and development of, the international breast cancer community.
Started nine years ago by a group of breast cancer survivors, the conference has grown into a multi-disciplinary, international gathering that allows women from all over the world to engage in discussion and develop valuable tools to assist them in their journey with breast cancer. Over 650 delegates from more than 60 countries converged in Halifax to share information on all aspects of the disease.
Several studies have, of course, shown the links between other forms of cancer and these products as well. The EWG report says that, in our bodies, chemicals interact with our genes, our nutritional status, whether or not we smoke and other factors.
"Fifty five per cent of all products assessed contain 'penetration enhancers' - ingredients that can increase a products penetration through the skin and into the blood stream, increasing consumers' exposures to other ingredients as well," the report says. It found 50 products containing penetration enhancers in combination with known human carcinogens.
Evans' NGO is spearheading a "Campaign for Safe Cosmetics", a coalition of public health, educational, religious, labour, women's environmental and consumer groups which is lobbying for stricter legislation to force companies to make safer, reformulated products readily available in the U.S and every market they serve.
In January 2003, the EU amended their Cosmetics Directive to ban the use of chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects from cosmetics. The amendment went into force on September 21, 2004, requiring cosmetic companies to remove these chemicals from all personal care products sold in the EU.
Companies like Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Estee Lauder create the same name brands of perfumes, hair gels, nail polish and shaving creams for both the European and US markets, observes Evans. When these companies reformulate for the EU, they could make these safer products available globally; but, she charges, several major US manufacturers have said they were not planning to sell the safer reformulated products in the US and other markets around the world.
"Our goal is to protect the health of consumers and workers by requiring the health and beauty industry to phase out the use of chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins -- because everyone has a right to safe and healthy products", she adds.