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Phthalates in Cosmetics: “Not Too Pretty”

Campaign Alerts Consumers to Health Risks of Phthalates in Many Cosmetics

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Overhead view of lipsticks
Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Not Too Pretty” campaign pertaining to the use of cosmetics? –
Lucy Balzary, Los Angeles, CA

The non-profit Environmental Working Group launched the Not Too Pretty campaign in 2002 to raise awareness about the dangers of phthalates, industrial chemicals that are used as solvents in many cosmetics. Most of the mainstream hair sprays, deodorants, nail polishes and perfumes that millions of people use every day contain these harmful chemicals. Phthalates are also employed as plastic softeners in many different consumer products, including children’s toys and medical devices.

Why Are Phthalates Dangerous?
Shown to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems in animal studies, phthalates can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Scientists at government agencies in both the U.S. and Canada agree that exposure to the chemicals could cause a wide range of health and reproductive problems in people.

Manufacturers use phthalates because they cling to the skin and nails to give perfumes, hair gels and nail polishes more staying power. But a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that five percent of women between age 20 and 40 had up to 45 times more phthalates in their bodies than researchers initially hypothesized. CDC found phthalates in virtually every person tested, but the largest concentrations -- 20 times higher than the rest of the population -- were found in women of child-bearing age. Meanwhile, another study, led by Dr. Shanna Swan of the University of Missouri, identified developmental abnormalities in male infants correlating to high phthalate levels in their mothers’ bodies.

Industry Group Denies Risk
Meanwhile, the industry-backed Phthalate Information Center asserts, “There is no reliable evidence that any phthalate has ever caused a health problem for a human from its intended use.” The group accuses organizations of “cherry picking” results “showing impacts on test animals to create unwarranted concern about these products.” But EWG spokesperson Lauren E. Sucher urges people -- especially women who are pregnant, nursing or planning on becoming pregnant -- to avoid phthalates. EWG is planning free online access to its "Skin Deep" database, which will list lotions, creams and polishes that contain phthalates.

Banned in Europe, Not U.S. or Canada
A 2003 European Union directive bans phthalates in cosmetics sold in Europe, but U.S. and Canadian regulators have not been so proactive, despite mounting evidence of potential harm. Health advocates were temporarily relieved when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would begin enforcing a 1975 law requiring labels on products with ingredients that haven't been safety tested. But such labels remain to be seen, even though 99 percent of cosmetics contain one or more untested ingredients.

Opposed to Phthalates? Make Your Voice Heard
Those interested in adding their voices to the chorus of environmental and health advocates opposed to the inclusion of phthalates in cosmetics can submit a customizable pre-written letter to the FDA expressing their concern via EWG's Not Too Pretty.org website. The website also provides pages and pages of information and research on the issue for those looking to learn more.

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EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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