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What’s lurking in Your Personal Care Products?

What’s lurking in Your Personal Care Products?

By Jak Burke,

A loophole in the FDA means that millions of Americans are subject to unsafe chemicals in their skin and beauty products. Every day on average an American woman uses 12 different personal care products, men use six but the FDA has investigated none of the chemicals used in these products. In the meanwhile the FDA regularly storms organic farm collectives, closes down unpasteurized milk vendors and arrests doctors that prescribe natural supplements. What you might ask is going on?

If the Johnson & Johnson talcum powder law-suits didn’t frighten you – the latest findings by the EWG (Environment Working Group) might. Companies whose personal care products are faulty or have caused direct harm to customers have no duty to report to the FDA. Furthermore the FDA has no power to recall faulty products. There are a few chemicals banned by the FDA but the list reads like A Poisoner’s Guide to Murder.

Chemicals currently banned by the FDA

  1. Bithionol. The use of bithionol is prohibited because it may cause photocontact sensitization (21 CFR 700.11).
    Chlorofluorocarbon propellants. The use of chlorofluorocarbon propellants in cosmetic aerosol products intended for domestic consumption is prohibited (21 CFR 700.23).
  2. Chloroform. The use of chloroform in cosmetic products is prohibited because it causes cancer in animals and is likely to be harmful to human health, too. The regulation makes an exception for residual amounts from its use as a processing solvent during manufacture, or as a byproduct from the synthesis of an ingredient (21 CFR 700.18).
  3. Halogenated salicylanilides (di-, tri-, metabromsalan and tetrachlorosalicylanilide). These are prohibited in cosmetic products because they may cause serious skin disorders (21 CFR 700.15).
  4. Hexachlorophene. Because of its toxic effect and ability to penetrate human skin, hexachlorophene (HCP) may be used only when no other preservative has been shown to be as effective. The HCP concentration in a cosmetic may not exceed 0.1 percent, and it may not be used in cosmetics that are applied to mucous membranes, such as the lips (21 CFR 250.250).
  5. Mercury compounds. Mercury compounds are readily absorbed through the skin on topical application and tend to accumulate in the body. They may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxic problems. The use of mercury compounds in cosmetics is limited to eye area products at no more than 65 parts per million (0.0065 percent) of mercury calculated as the metal and is permitted only if no other effective and safe preservative is available. All other cosmetics containing mercury are adulterated and subject to regulatory action unless it occurs in a trace amount of less than 1 part per million (0.0001 percent) calculated as the metal and its presence is unavoidable under conditions of good manufacturing practice (21 CFR 700.13).
  6. Methylene chloride. It causes cancer in animals and is likely to be harmful to human health, too (21 CFR 700.19).
    Prohibited cattle materials. To protect against bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease,” cosmetics may not be manufactured from, processed with, or otherwise contain, prohibited cattle materials. These materials include specified risk materials*, material from nonambulatory cattle, material from cattle not inspected and passed, or mechanically separated beef. Prohibited cattle materials do not include tallow that contains no more than 0.15 percent insoluble impurities, tallow derivatives, and hides and hide-derived products, and milk and milk products** (21 CFR 700.27).
  7. Sunscreens in cosmetics. Use of the term “sunscreen” or similar sun protection wording in a product’s labeling generally causes the product to be subject to regulation as a drug or a drug/cosmetic, depending on the claims. However, sunscreen ingredients may also be used in some cosmetic products to protect the products’ color. The labelling must also state why the sunscreen ingredient is used, for example, “Contains a sunscreen to protect product color.” If this explanation isn’t present, the product may be subject to regulation as a drug (21 CFR 700.35). For more information on sunscreens, refer to Tanning Products.
  8. Vinyl chloride. The use of vinyl chloride is prohibited as an ingredient of aerosol products, because it causes cancer and other health problems (21 CFR 700.14).
  9. Zirconium-containing complexes. The use of zirconium-containing complexes in aerosol cosmetic products is prohibited because of their toxic effect on lungs of animals, as well as the formation of granulomas in human skin (21 CFR 700.16).

Feeling safe? In comparison the E.U has banned 1,300 chemicals. Fortunately the demand for more natural, less-toxic personal care products has led to a host of brands and companies offering safer alternatives. Here is the EWG guide to safe personal care products.

But these items can be cost-prohibitive for some households. What is needed is a Personal Care Products Safety Act – a bill currently sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and sponsored by the EWG. The bill if passed would create a regulatory structure for governing personal care products.

Is this an example of more Big Government? Well yes, but in this case it is needed. Some of the chemicals used in personal care products have not been tested by independent scientists – that’s scientists who are not on some big company’s payroll. A key component of the bill would be that the FDA would have to investigate and test five personal care product ingredients a year. This is important because some of the routine chemicals used in personal care products have been found to disrupt hormonal systems.

“Some hair straighteners known as “Brazilian blowout” can contain as much as 10% pure formaldehyde. The federal government has labeled this chemical as a known human carcinogen when inhaled. Customers and stylists breathe formaldehyde during these hair straightening sessions, putting them at greater risk for cancer, when exposed to high concentrations of formaldehyde over time, and, at lower concentrations, respiratory problems, headaches and allergic reactions.” Time Magazine.

5 tips for avoiding harmful chemicals

  1. Look at the label! Research each chemical listed. Is your product primarily comprised from chemicals? Avoid it.
  2. Any product kind to animals will be kind on you. Cosmetics and skin products that involve animal testing are not only cruel but suggestive of potential long-term harm.
  3. Seek out brands that have the highest % of natural ingredients.
  4. Appropriate a budget for good personal care products. Don’t be tempted to go cheap. Low-cost personal care products are often manufactured over-seas where there is less control over chemicals used.
  5. Buy E.U-made (or natural USA-made products – see #3) until the bill is passed none of us can trust that American manufacturers are acting responsibly.

Support the bill now.
Environment Working Group


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