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San Jose Mercury News: Clean up the cosmetic industry

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

October 23, 2013

The makers of cosmetics are experts in the art of cover-up.


Researchers say the $60 billion beauty industry often fails to disclose the use of potentially dangerous ingredients in its products, including lead, phthalates, formaldehyde and triclosan — and the Food and Drug Administration does not test or approve cosmetics before they go to market. Manufacturers are on the honor system, and that invites abuse, since Americans tend to think things like makeup have been certified as safe.


Fortunately, big-box retailers Target and Walmart are pressuring manufacturers for safer cosmetics. But Congress should give the FDA power to recall products that are found to be potentially dangerous.


Target is leading the movement for transparency. It announced a policy last week that will push makers of beauty supplies, as well as household cleaners, to remove harmful chemicals from their products.


Target will work with consumer activists and a coalition of environmental and health organizations to create safety standards for rating cosmetics and cleaning products on a scale from zero to 100. Beginning in 2014, the ratings will appear on labels, educating consumers and encouraging manufacturers to avoid dangerous chemicals that will lower their ratings. Target said it would give preference in shelf placement to higher-rated products.


Walmart announced last month that it would require suppliers to eliminate certain hazardous chemicals, which it has yet to specify, or it would stop selling their products. Together, these stores account for a huge share of the market, so they should make a difference.


The beauty industry argues that its products are safe, noting that fewer than 200 adverse reactions were reported last year to the 11 billion products sold. But in a 2012 study, the FDA found that 380 of 400 lipsticks tested contained lead at more than 0.1 parts per million, the FDA’s limit allowed in candy. Lipstick made by such popular brands as Maybelline and L’Oreal had 70 times more lead than the FDA’s candy limit.


Congress has enacted a permanent ban on three types of phthalates in amounts greater than 0.1 percent in children’s toys and child care products. But phthalates are commonly used in perfumes, body sprays and colognes to hold scent. The FDA says the threat to adults is unclear, but there is evidence that phthalates disrupt hormones in the human reproductive system, possibly causing infertility in males and early-onset of menopause in females. People would report a skin rash to a cosmetic company, but they would never think of these conditions as possibly related to their choice of cologne.


In any case, there is no good reason to refuse to list ingredients instead of categorizing a whole array of chemicals as “scent.” Clearer labeling will make for more beauty in the eye of the beholder.