Make-up kit holds hidden danger of cancer
New study claims legal loopholes allow beauty products to contain deadly toxins
Sunday April 7, 2002
Women are being exposed to deadly diseases through the everyday use of common cosmetics bought over the counter, according to a new study.
The growing list of synthetic ingredients manufacturers add to their products are turning the most innocent-looking shampoos and moisturisers into cocktails of toxins that could cause cancer over years of sustained use.
In Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself From The Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics, to be published in Britain next month, authors Kim Erickson and Dr Samuel S. Epstein reveal how manufacturers exploit loopholes in legislation designed to protect the public.
'These synthetic ingredients are inexpensive, stable and have a long shelf-life,' said Erickson. 'Manufacturers love them, but although the majority of products appear safe in the short run the results from long-term use could be deadly.'
The UK cosmetics industry, which employs more than 20,000 people and accounts for £4.5 billion in sales each year, is regulated under the the Department of Trade and Industry's 1996 Cosmetic Products (Safety) Regulations.
But while the regulations have approved more than 3,000 ingredients for cosmetic use in Europe, Erickson warns that many more find their way into use through loopholes, such as the caveat that allows products to contain traces of banned substances if they could not reasonably be removed during or after manufacture.
'Modern cosmetics contain a host of dubious ingredients which would be more at home in a test tube than on our faces,' said Erickson. 'Coal tar colours, phenylenediamine, benzene, even formaldehyde, are just a few of the synthetic chemicals commonly included in shampoos, skin creams and blushes - toxins which are absorbed into your skin with every use.'
Unlike food or drugs, cosmetics and their raw ingredients are not subject to review or independent pre-market approval, a situation criticised by experts including Dr Jean Munro, medical director of The Breakspear Hospital, Hertfordshire, which specialises in allergies and has seen 8,000 women since opening in 1982 - nearly all of whom were found to have a sensitivity to cosmetics.
'There is no question that people are being damaged by their cosmetics,' Munro said. 'How can they not be? So many things are put into cosmetics now that are carcinogenic and it is allowed because cosmetics are not considered to be as serious as drugs or food.'
Munro believes the presence of large numbers of even small amounts of banned substances means that, over time, users will have been exposed to danger.
'One of the most extreme cases I have seen was a woman whose bone marrow was affected by chemicals used in hair dye. The level of her blood platelets dropped and she broke out in a severe rash,' she said. 'The situation as it is is plainly dangerous - unacceptably so.'
Denise Santamarina, a 34-year-old beautician, has spent 10 years battling chemically induced lupus. 'I started getting sick when I began taking cosmetology classes,' she said. 'Over the next 10 years I suffered from a string of digestive problems, sinus infections and excruciating pain in my back, ribcage and arms. There were days when I would crawl across the floor in pain.'
Santamarina was given a chemical screening by doctors which showed high levels of benzene and toluene C, both common ingredients in nail polish and polish remover. After leaving her job and removing all synthetic cosmetics from her dressing table, Santamarina gradually began to recover.
'I am basically better now, but it was a long road to travel,' she said. 'I still find it hard to believe that I was poisoned by cosmetics, but the cause and effect leave no room for argument.'
Erickson believes the adverse effects of toxins is compounded over decades, confusing hormone receptors and slowly altering cell structure. Chemicals are transmitted into the bloodstream in a number of ways: powders have the least absorption, while oily solutions or those designed to increase moisture allow more of the chemical to be absorbed.
Eye makeup can be absorbed by the highly sensitive mucous membranes. Hair sprays, perfumes and dusting powders can be inhaled, irritating the lungs. Lipstick is often chewed off and swallowed.
The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that approximately 70,000 chemicals are in common use across the world with 1,000 new chemicals being introduced every year. Of all the chemicals used in cosmetics, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has reported that nearly 900 are toxic - although other groups attack that figure as being far too conservative.
'Compared to the toxins found in our air, soil and waterways, cosmetics seem a trivial pursuit to many environmental health and consumer advocacy groups,' said Erickson. 'But many of the same poisons that pollute our environment, from dioxins to petrochemicals, can be found in the jars and bottles that line our bathroom shelves.'
Erickson admits it is too early to know with certainty how serious the long-term impact could be on health, but warns that hormone-disrupting chemicals may lurk in cosmetics which could lower immunity to disease and cause neurological and reproductive damage. 'Many of these same ingredients have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals,' she said. 'At best, a visit to your neighbourhood cosmetic counter could result in allergies, irritations and sensitivities.'
Some companies are moving slowly towards producing synthetic-free cosmetics, but experts say it is too early to judge whether these ranges are all they claim to be.