By Kara Alaimo
Friday, March 23, 2007
In response to emerging studies that raise warnings about the potentially toxic effects of an ingredient in cosmetics, the industry is ramping up efforts to persuade consumers and lawmakers that its products are safe.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Olivia James has suspicions about her makeup that the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association wants to dispel.
Ten years after her son was born with hypospadias--a birth anomaly in which the urine tube develops abnormally on the penis--preliminary research has led her to believe that an ingredient in the cosmetics she used heavily in her 15 years as a model is to blame.
"I would not have used as many cosmetics if I had known," says James, who wore multiple layers of makeup daily as a model for fashion houses and makeup companies.
James, 43, of Dayton, N.J., has become an outspoken critic of the cosmetic industry's use of phthalates, a chemical which enables makeup to adhere to the skin without smudging or, in fragrances and cosmetics, holds color and scent or triggers absorption.
Although the industry--represented by its Washington-based trade group, the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association--has deep disagreements with critics such as James and the San Francisco-based advocacy group the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, both sides agree that scrutiny has been growing for the past several years.
In response, the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association has embarked on what it calls an "education process" designed to reassure consumers.
This summer, the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association will launch a Web site allowing consumers to search cosmetic ingredients and learn why and how they are used. John Bailey, the trade group's executive vice president for science, says focus groups have taught the industry that "consumers are looking for greater transparency."
"There is nothing to indicate that the current use (of phthalates in cosmetics) poses a public health risk," he says.
Unlike other health-related products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not test cosmetics before they enter the market, relying upon companies to substantiate the safety of their goods.
Each cosmetic company has its own approach to safety, says Bailey. "It's not a formula; it's not a checklist. It's applying good science."
In January, the industry group released a "consumer commitment code" to assuage consumer concerns but declined to report which, if any, of their member companies signed it. In the code, companies pledge to only market products that they or an industry panel has deemed to be safe.
In the same month, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released its own voluntary compact signed by 500 cosmetic and personal-care companies around the world. Under the pledge, companies promise to eliminate ingredients related to cancer, birth anomalies or hormonal disruption from their products within three years. While some better-known companies such as the Body Shop and Burt's Bees have signed the compact, the industry's major players are notably absent, such as Avon, Estee Lauder, L'Oreal, Revlon and Proctor and Gamble, who have refused to sign, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
The industry's new code came a year after Frank Luntz--the political strategist behind the "Contract With America" campaign widely credited with helping the GOP win control of Congress in 1994--was hired by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association to conduct focus groups on public sentiment toward phthalates in cosmetics.
Lisa Powers, the industry lobbying group's vice president of communications, was hired in May 2006, and previously worked for the Mercury Group, a public relations and crisis management firm in Alexandria, Va. Powers declined to say if the group's communications and lobbying budgets have increased.
The industry group created a new position in December 2005 when it hired Kathleen Dezio--previously a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association's program to bring vending machines into schools--to head public affairs.
Stacy Malkan, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, says the industry is focusing on public relations and deflecting regulatory pressures instead of eliminating any possible risks from its products. She calls the industry's voluntary safety code "a joke" because of the limited commitment it entails.
"There are huge gaps in what we know about cosmetic chemicals," says Malkan. "There is new science coming out almost daily about the negative effects of these chemicals. The industry is under increased regulatory pressure."
The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association lobbied against legislation signed into law in California in October 2005 that requires cosmetic companies to report the use of certain chemicals to the state. A similar bill was introduced in the Washington state Legislature in February and is now pending.
Around the time of the California legislation, the industry group added new lobbying staff. It hired Elvis Oxley, son of Michael Oxley, then a U.S. Congressman. John Hurson, a member of the Maryland State Assembly who was considered a key lawmaker on health issues, resigned his elected office to join the trade group's lobby staff in October 2005.
Hurson says the organization opposed the California law because it "creates an extra regulatory process we really didn't need."
The Bush administration lobbied the European Union on behalf of the chemicals industry to try to prevent a law--which the EU passed in December--requiring companies to report on the toxicity of chemicals, including those used in cosmetics.
Researchers first looked to cosmetics to explain why they found higher doses of phthalates in women than in men. In 2002, researchers in Chicago tested 72 brand-name cosmetics and found that 52 contained phthalates, but none listed the chemical on their label.
In August 2005, researchers including University of Rochester epidemiologist Shanna Swan published the first study to examine mothers' prenatal exposure to phthalates in relation to the genital development of their baby boys. The small study found subtle changes suggesting the development of the genitals of boys whose mothers had high levels of phthalates was less complete than in those whose mothers were exposed to lower levels of phthalates.
Swan says determining whether exposure to phthalates is contributing to increasing rates of male infertility and testicular cancer--as studies on rodents currently suggest--is "one of the most important items on the research agenda." Although the study has not been replicated on humans yet, Swan says that data from rodents has so far been a relatively accurate predictor for humans.
Kara Alaimo is a New York-based writer.
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Campaign for Safe Cosmetics:
Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association:
PR Watch, "Cosmetic Solutions: The Makeup Industry Gives Itself a Health Hazard Makeover":
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