Danger of Toxic Chemical in Cosmetics?

ByEphrat Livni

Nov. 28, 2000 -- The next time you buy nail polish or antiperspirant, read the ingredients.

Manufacturers are putting a toxic chemical that causes severe birth defects in animals in shampoos, conditioners, antiperspirants, cosmetics and especially nail polishes, according to a report released today by the Environmental Working Group.

Alarmed by the discovery that dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, was present in every single person tested for the compound by the Centers for Disease Control this fall — with the highest levels found in reproductive-age women — the environmental group decided to study the compound’s prevalence in consumer products.

“Government researchers speculate the elevated levels of DBP among women of childbearing age come from cosmetics and beauty products but no one has done the studies to test this hypothesis,” writes the report’s lead author, Jane Houlihan.

Concerned that “the most critical population” appeared to receive the highest exposures to DBP, members of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group scoured both real and virtual drugstores, as well as U.S. Patent records, to find the toxin in widely used products.

“We wanted to know what products containing DBP were readily available to the average consumer, and whether or not you could actually read the list of ingredients on the label,” says Houlihan.

Many Popular Brands Contain DBP

The group says it discovered DBP in many popular brands, including nail polishes, top coats and hardeners made by L’Oreal, Maybelline, Oil of Olay and Cover Girl. In an analysis of more than 100 patents, the environmental group found Procter & Gamble, which owns both Oil of Olay and Cover Girl, held the most, with 37, followed by L’Oreal, with 10 patents containing DBP.

“Major loopholes in federal law allow cosmetics manufacturers to put unlimited amounts of industrial chemicals like DBP into personal care products without any testing for adverse health effects,” the reports says.

Because the government conducts chemical safety testing on compounds only if they are directly added to food, even chemicals that are tightly regulated as environmental pollutants can still find their way into personal care products, it says.

Procter & Gamble representatives declined to comment on the report, saying it was an industry issue and not company-specific.

In a statement, the Washington D.C.-based Cosmetic, Toilet and Fragrance Association, which represents the personal care products industry in regulatory matters, says: “Nail polishes and cosmetics are safe … The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requires that cosmetics and their individual ingredients must be safe and that labeling must be truthful and not misleading … The Food and Drug Administration can take immediate action to stop the sale of any product that does not meet the standards.”

An FDA representative says the agency is aware of both the earlier CDC study and today’s Environmental Working Group report and is looking into the matter.

DBP is used to help nail polish form an even film as it dries, to keep products blended and evenly consistent, and as an ingredient to help cosmetics penetrate the skin. The compound is also found in patents for shampoos, conditioners, lotions, hair growth formulations, antiperspirants, sunscreen and even gum and candy.

Beauty Secrets?

According to a report earlier this year by the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction in Alexandria, Va., dibutyl phthalate is particularly damaging to the male reproductive system, with effects ranging from reduced sperm counts to testicular atrophy. There is no information, however, on how much DBP it takes to harm humans — male or female.

Center scientists did study the chemical’s effects on laboratory animals, such as rats and mice, testing the effects of high exposure on fetuses, organs, skin and more. Dozens of different tests were conducted at a variety of exposure levels. When pregnant rats were fed high doses — from 650 to 1,000 milligrams of DBP a day — fetal weights went down and some rats were born with cleft palates.

DBP is one of more than 100 chemical pollutants and pesticides found in Americans, and it is virtually impossible to isolate the effects of DBP in the population at large, the Environmental Working Group says. “No one knows exactly where these exposures come from or the effect of constant exposure to this low-level mixture of poisons,” the report says.

The group, nonetheless, suggests caution. “Based on our findings, we’re recommending that women who are considering becoming pregnant, or who are pregnant or nursing should avoid using any products with DBP,” says Houlihan.

Nail products that do not contain DBP include L’Oreal Paris Jet-Set Quick Dry Enamel, Revlon Nail Enamel and Garden Botanika Natural Color Nail Color.

The Environmental Working Group will push for a comprehensive cosmetics industry-funded study, to establish which chemicals are dangerous to humans. It is also calling for improvements to cosmetics industry labels, so they are more legible.

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