woman putting on lipstick

Credit: _Frankenstein_ on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–PixieDust. Triple Pearl. Infinity Cream.

If these words sound magical, to women’s health advocates, they are: the names of cosmetics that are specially brewed to be free of harmful chemicals.

“Natural” products like these new 2013 ones (a nail polish by Zoya, a face powder by Jane Iredale and a moisturizer by Josie Maran) have surged in popularity in recent years.

The U.S. market for natural skin care, hair care and makeup products spiked 61 percent from 2005 to 2010 and now generate $8 billion in annual sales. This market is projected to reach $11 billion by 2016, with 1-in-8 women using natural products, reports Packaged Facts, a market research firm in Rockville, Md.

In the past decade, toxin-free cosmetics have been introduced by major companies (such as L’Oreal, Revlon and Chanel) as well as mid-sized ones (such as Dashing Diva and Dr. Hauschka). Small businesses that specialize in natural products (such as Badger, Suki and Good for You Girls) have burgeoned, then flourished.

Still, scientists and grassroots activists say cosmetics companies and federal regulators are failing to do all they should to keep makeup free of problem ingredients such as the neurotoxin toluene (used to help nail polish adhere smoothly) and a class of carcinogens called parabens (used as preservatives in face powders and moisturizers alike).

“The existing system for regulating our industry is overdue for a makeover,” says Lezlee Westine, president of the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group in Washington, D.C.

The Safe Cosmetics Act, which would mandate full ingredient disclosure and phase out the use of carcinogens, failed to pass in Congress in 2011. Lawmakers such as Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Reps. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., hope to reintroduce it later this year.

For now, though, health advocates urge consumer vigilance.

12 Products Daily

Cancer survivor Kristi Marsh is lobbying to remove carcinogens from cosmetics to protect the future health of her daughter, Kaytee.
Cancer survivor Kristi Marsh is lobbying to remove carcinogens from cosmetics to protect the future health of her daughter, Kaytee.

The average woman slathers on 12 personal care products per day, reports the Environmental Working Group, in Washington, D.C.

“The more brands you use, the more you are going to be exposed to toxic chemicals,” warns Robin Dodson, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass.

The Environmental Working Group offers consumers access to its “Skin Deep” database, an online list of all the ingredients found in 80,0000 personal-care products (even in cases where these ingredients are not found on products’ usually long and convoluted labels).

Women of color can turn to the nonprofit West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT, in New York City) to check the safety of ethnic beauty products through WE ACT’s website and email bulletins.

Beauty-salon employees can turn to the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance (run by Women’s Voices for the Earth, in Missoula, Mont.) for help with workplace advocacy.

A December 2012 report from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics gives consumers tips for where to buy makeup. Ranking popular retailers, it gives top marks to Whole Foods (which screens out 400 suspect chemicals), followed by CVS, Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco and then Macy’s (blasted in the report for failing to offer natural products in some of its stores).

Community initiatives by grassroots activists are also helping to educate women. “While undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer six years ago, I did Internet searches to find out how I could keep myself healthy, and was shocked to discover that the makeup I was using actually contained carcinogens,” says Kristi Marsh, 42, of North Easton, Mass.

Now cancer free, Marsh has purged her makeup collection of toxic products and devotes her spare time to giving presentations for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in her area.

“As a final resort, there’s the do-it-yourself option,” says Cindy Luppi of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which offers online recipes for all-natural makeup. Near the top of its list is a lip tint made with three simple ingredients: cooking oil, beeswax and beet juice.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a Washington-based initiative launched in 2002, has fueled the natural products trend by persuading 2,000 manufacturers to sign a pledge to create safer makeup.

Science Galvanizes Trend

Scientific proof that some cosmetics ingredients cause harm has also galvanized go-green products.

Recent research (such as a 2007 report by the Breast Cancer Fund, in San Francisco) indicates American girls are developing breast buds 18 months earlier than they did 30 years ago. Such studies link early puberty to phthalates, chemicals that mimic the effects of the female hormone estrogen and are commonly used to help makeup adhere to the skin.

Studies have tied breast cancer, which has doubled in incidence in the past 50 years, to ethylene oxide (an ingredient in fragrances), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in eye makeup) and hydroquinone (found in skin lighteners).

Nearly 40 percent of adults are now reading the labels on personal care products, reports Packaged Facts. And nearly 60 percent of people rank safety as their No. 1 concern when buying such products, notes a 2011 survey by Deloitte, in New York City.

Oversight, however, lags behind. Only 20 percent of the 12,500 chemicals used in personal care products have been thoroughly evaluated by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, based in Washington, D.C.

The Food and Drug Administration, in Silver Spring, Md., does not have the authority to test cosmetics for safety before they are marketed. That means harmful ingredients, which can be less expensive than safer alternatives, continue to prevail.

Case in point: formaldehyde, a neurotoxin not found on the label of the hair straightener Brazilian Blowout, was recently discovered to lurk in high levels in this product. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration urged salons to stop using Brazilian Blowout in 2011, and the product’s Hollywood, Calif., maker lost a $4.5 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit in 2012.

Despite all that, the FDA has been unable to yank Brazilian Blowout from drugstore shelves or prevent it from triggering nosebleeds, eye irritation, respiratory trouble and other problems linked to formaldehyde exposure.

‘Greenwashing’ Products

Health advocates say that even when companies agree to follow FDA recommendations and make their products toxin free, they sometimes engage in “greenwashing,” or falsifying environmental or health claims to boost product sales.

In 2006, for instance, Opi, Essie and other nail polish makers agreed to rid their products of a “toxic trio” of chemicals: formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate and toluene. But in 2012, a study by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that 70 percent of nail polishes that claimed to be “three-free” actually contained these chemicals.

“Companies play it both ways,” says Nneka Leiba, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group. “They’ll make one category of products that are safe, and others that are not.”

One example is the Paris-based cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, which offers nontoxic products through its Origins line, but has yet to go all-natural in its other makeup brands, including Bobbi Brown, Clinique, MAC, Prescriptives and Smashbox.

Even when companies do initiate change, it can be slow in coming. Johnson and Johnson, the New Brunswick, N.J-based maker of the cosmetics line Neutrogena, agreed in 2012 to remove formaldehyde from its products. “This will take three years, a wait that seems unnecessary because scientists already know how to make formaldehyde-free products,” says Stacy Malkan, author of book “Not Just a Pretty Face: the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

Makeup industry watchdogs say pricing and labeling practices offer little guidance about what might be inside the packaging.

When FDA researchers tested 400 lipsticks for lead in 2011, they found samples made by the high-end brand Lancome contained significantly more of the neurotoxin than those made by the drugstore brand Wet n Wild (which sells for a 10th of the price of Lancome).

Because fragrance formulations are protected as trade secrets, chemicals used to produce signature scents do not have to be listed on labels.

“Labels might list the names of chemicals such as DMDM hydantoin,” says the Environmental Working Group’s Leiba. “But they won’t mention that this preservative breaks down over time to become the carcinogen formaldehyde.”

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