MARIN COUNTY, CALIF. (WOMENSENEWS)--Female teens in California and Montana are taking on the $35 billion cosmetics industry one eyeliner at a time.
Their national campaign to promote safe cosmetics is applying idealism and energy to educate girls--and boys--about phthalates, which health advocates warn are carcinogenic, and other toxins in nail polish, shampoos, hair dyes and facial cleansers.
In Marin County, Calif., and in Missoula, Mont., the advocates want their peers to read cosmetic labels, use fewer beauty products and take a closer look at those colorful tubes in their makeup bags. They talk of healthy cosmetic parties and peppering their local schools and stores with Operation Beauty Drop bins to encourage consumers to toss questionable products. And they are working to learn what ingredients can potentially cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm.
"This campaign has made me more aware of the things that I'm putting into my body," said Taylor Lorenz, a 15-year-old Marin girl who said she began using mascara, eye shadow and foundation at age 12. "I never thought about what was in cosmetics, but now if I can find a better alternative, I'm definitely interested in it."
The cosmetics industry insists its products are safe.
"It's unfortunate that they've gotten inaccurate misinformation and are concerned about perfectly safe products," said Gerald McEwen, vice president of science for the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, which represents roughly 600 companies. "My fear is that this is something where they are being exposed to misinformation, speculation and scare tactics and that is causing them to react in a way that isn't in their best interest health-wise or to their pocketbooks."
The activism is especially poignant in Marin County, where during the past several years breast cancer rates have been as much as 15 percent higher than elsewhere in California, according the Northern California Cancer Center.
A study done five years ago by the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan linked phthalates to early puberty in girls. Harvard University researchers found in 2002 and 2003 that the chemicals can decrease sperm counts in men. And experts with several environmental groups say phthalates disrupt hormone function and may contribute to rising cases of uterine problems in women, testicular cancer in men and infertility in both sexes.
"If I had known about the potential cancer causing effects of cosmetics I think I would have researched it more instead of just buying the cheapest product or what everyone was wearing," said Audra Silman, a 16-year-old who has used mascara and eyeliner for four years.
Safe Cosmetics Campaign in Missoula sprang from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of more than a dozen health and environmental groups lobbying the cosmetics industry to eliminate potentially toxic chemicals.
Both organizations use research from the Environmental Working Group's 2004 report that found that one-third of all cosmetics contain one or more ingredients classified as possible carcinogens.
The report also notes that just 11 percent of the more than 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products have been evaluated for safety. The European Union has banned potentially carcinogenic phthalates known as DBP and DEHP from all cosmetics. Those chemicals are used in some fragrances, hair sprays and nail polishes and many industry insiders say they are safe.
Several cosmetic industry giants, including L'Oreal, Revlon and Avon, have eliminated the toxic chemicals from their products. Avon spokesperson Victor Beaudet said the company's decision was made "to allay public concern, not a safety concern," contending that phthalates are not dangerous.
Body Shop International, Urban Decay Cosmetics and Aveda Corporation do not use phthalates.
The teens say they'd like to see all cosmetics and beauty products made safer.
"I don't think (the campaign) will stop people entirely from buying makeup but it will make them more aware," said Julia Vitaro, a 17-year-old Marin student.
But getting through to teens--often are easily swayed by peer pressure and advertising --might be tough.
"You see models who have been airbrushed and you think if you use the product it will make you look like that . . . but really it could cause cancer," said Silman, who said she spends about $400 on cosmetics yearly.
Others are confident the campaign will catch on.
"The thing about teens is they want to do the right thing, but they don't know that they aren't," said Judi Shils, the director of the Marin Cancer Project, a member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics coalition. "Teens are going to be using chemicals for decades. We have no clue about the chemicals they are putting into themselves. Who knows what they are going to do to the body down the road in 30 or 40 years."
FDA Does Not Review Cosmetics
The federal Food and Drug Administration does not review or approve cosmetic ingredients or products. It also does not require companies to conduct safety tests on cosmetics or beauty products, but it does investigate complaints from consumers.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a 30-year-old self-regulating committee funded by the industry trade group Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, has tested hundreds of cosmetic and beauty product ingredients and posted the results--safe, unsafe or insufficient data--on its Web site.
The testing is voluntary and controlled by manufacturers, according to the Environmental Working Group, which analyzed more than 7,500 ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products and found many may be harmful. The group also surveyed 2,300 people and found that, on average, adults use 9 personal care products containing 126 chemical ingredients each day. The survey found that more than 25 percent of women use as many as 15 products daily.
For their part, cosmetic industry representatives insist their products are safe. McEwen, of the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, claims the environmental group's findings that just 11 percent of 10,500 ingredients have been evaluated for safety are erroneous because some ingredients--listed in different ways--were counted twice.
"There are really less than 4,000 chemicals," said McEwen, adding that the Cosmetic Ingredient Review has reviewed 1,200 of the most commonly used ingredients in cosmetics. "Any consumer can go to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Web site and look at what is safe, what kind of a system exists and the conclusions that have been drawn."
Doug Schoon, vice president of science and technology for Creative Nail Designs in Southern California, called the teen project "fear-based marketing."
"Sex sells, but nothing like fear sells," he said. "They are trying to sell their philosophies and their beliefs. They are bullying the cosmetic industry. They are saying, 'We don't like your product, and if you don't change it, we are going to tell your customers your products cause cancer and scare them.'
"You have to look at the whole picture. As long as people pay attention to warning labels, they are extremely unlikely to be harmed by a product," he said. "To my knowledge I can not think of a single cosmetic ingredient that can not be used safely, and, when they are discovered, they are removed and not used anymore."
Sasha Hoffman, a 17-year-old member of the Marin group and the reigning Miss India America Teen, will raise the issue when she competes in April for the Miss India World title. Hoffman, who has been modeling since she was 5 and entering pageants since age 14, admits to the power of makeup in winning the crowns, but not without worry.
"It's a lot of makeup to pack on," she said. "I'm constantly wearing way too much makeup, but you get paid to do it so we have to. I try not to wear any makeup in my spare time to let my face recover."
Kristin Bender is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.
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For more information:
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics:
Environmental Working Group--
Skin Deep: A safety assessment of ingredients in personal care products:
Cosmetic Ingredient Review:
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