WASHINGTON, DC -- The U.S. Cosmetics Ingredients Review panel has approved the continued use of phthalates in cosmetics, concluding that the chemicals are "safe as currently used." Activist groups, noting that the European Union has just ordered the phase out of some phthalates in cosmetics, said the panel's decision leaves U.S. women at risk of exposure to chemicals that some tests suggest may be linked to birth defects.
After a comprehensive review of scientific studies, the Cosmetics Ingredients Review (CIR) panel concluded that three related chemicals - dibutyl (DBP), diethyl (DEP) and dimethyl (DMP) phthalate - used to prolong the life of fragrances do not pose harm to cosmetic users. The panel, which is funded and advised by the cosmetics industry, last reviewed the safety of these substances in 1985.
"The CIR Expert Panel's decision is based on solid science and not on speculation," said Dr. Gerald McEwen, vice president for science at the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA). "The science clearly supports the continued safe use of these ingredients in cosmetics."
McEwen said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Health Canada and other scientific bodies in Europe and Japan have also examined these phthalates and have not restricted their use.
But many health groups, women's rights advocates and environmentalists warn that exposure phthalates have been linked to birth defects in animals, and criticize the marketing of phthalate containing cosmetics to women of childbearing age. They warn that the ubiquitous presence of phthalates in so many consumer products may lead to dangerous levels of exposure for pregnant women and other vulnerable groups.
"The decision of the CIR panel protects the cosmetics and chemicals industries at the expense of American consumers," said Charlotte Brody, RN, executive director of Health Care Without Harm.
Phthalates are a family of chemical compounds developed over the last century and used in a variety of consumer products, including flexible plastics, adhesives, caulking, paint pigments and a wide range of beauty products such as nail polish and perfume.
"The panel essentially said that, yes, phthalates can be dangerous, but not at the low levels present in cosmetics," Brody added. "However, the panel failed to act on the scientific reality that consumers are repeatedly exposed to these chemicals through multiple beauty products and other common items - such as vinyl shower curtains, toys and car seats and the levels are adding up to harm."
On November 7, the European Commission voted to ban two of the most controversial phthalates - DEHP and DBP - from cosmetic and personal care products. Europe has already banned both phthalates from children's toys that are likely to be put in the mouth, such as teething rings.
In the United States, the ingredients of cosmetics are largely determined by the industry itself, with oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The CIR panel, for example, includes seven voting medical and scientific members selected and funded by the industry, along with non-voting representatives from the FDA, the Consumer Federation of America, and the cosmetics industry.
The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association notes that the panel must meet the same conflict of interest standards as persons serving on the FDA's expert advisory committees, and that the scientific body reviewed many of the same studies cited by phthalate critics as evidence of the links between the chemicals and reproductive birth defects.
"Most people are surprised to learn that the government neither conducts nor requires safety testing of chemicals that go into health and beauty products," said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research, Environmental Working Group (EWG). "The panel's assessment [of phthalates] was heavily influenced by cosmetic industry science advisors and would not stand up to modern standards for public health protection."
The EWG and other phthalate critics were hoping that the U.S. cosmetics industry would act to remove the controversial chemicals from commercial products, and now say they will increase pressure on the federal government to ban phthalates in certain products. The FDA's legal authority over cosmetics is comparable with its authority over foods, nonprescription drugs and nonprescription medical devices, and the agency can take action to stop the sale of any product that does not meet its standards.
Safe alternatives to phthalates are already being used in many beauty products, noted Bryony Schwan, national campaigns director of Women's Voices for the Earth.
"Now is the time for the federal government and for companies to act decisively," said Schwan. "FDA must require labeling so that consumers can make informed choices, and cosmetics manufacturers must remove these chemicals from their products or risk damage to their brand names."
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. However, because most cosmetics use phthalates to prolong the life of fragrances, their presence is generally lumped together with "perfumes" on product labels.
Recent lab tests found phthalates in 72 percent of beauty products tested in the U.S. and Europe, including top selling hair sprays, deodorants and fragrances. None of the products listed phthalates on their labels.
"Many people are exposed to multiple doses every day from the range of cosmetics they use, while workers in the cosmetics and beauty industry face triple exposure," says Helen Lynn, health coordinator at the Women's Environmental Network. "Yet because the manufacturers don't have to list phthalates on the product label, it is impossible for the consumer to avoid them."
On Tuesday, Women's Voices for the Earth and other advocacy groups ran an ad in the "Washington Post" featuring Calvin Klein's Eternity, Aqua Net Hair Spray and other products that contain phthalates. The products are owned by Unilever, the Dutch based consumer conglomerate.
The groups also ran a full page ad in the "New York Times" in July featuring Poison perfume by Christian Dior and listing dozens of other products that contain phthalates.
Despite this pressure, the cosmetics industry has shown little interest in voluntarily removing phthalates from health and beauty products. For example, perfume manufacturers, almost all of whom include the phthalate DEP to prolong the life of their fragrances, applauded Tuesday's decision by the CIR panel as supporting their own position regarding the chemicals.
"DEP is a safe fragrance ingredient, thoroughly tested and reviewed by the industry, multiple independent scientific panels, and regulatory agencies in the United States and abroad," said Glenn Roberts, executive director of the Fragrance Materials Association.
And the American Beauty Association said Tuesday that it will continue to support the use of dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in nail polish products, based on the CIR decision and on the group's own tests suggesting that DBP does not penetrate the body through fingernails.
"This study and an independent expert analysis of the study concluded unequivocally that (1) dibutyl phthalate in nail polish product concentrations does not appreciably penetrate the human fingernail, and (2), DBP does not add to the overall bioburden from exposure to phthalates," said Paul Dykstra, executive director of the American Beauty Association.
But some companies are choosing to remove the controversial chemicals from their products. On Tuesday, The Body Shop International announced that it will phase out phthalates from all of its products. Product tests in Europe, completed earlier this month, found phthalates in the company's deodorant.
"There is growing concern that certain phthalates can cause hormone disruption in humans and that their presence in many different types of product can lead to extensive human exposure to this class of chemicals," the company said in a statement. "As a result, The Body Shop International has adopted a precautionary approach. We have taken action to avoid the use of phthalates in all of our new perfumes used in products. We also aim to phase out the phthalates that remain in existing perfumes as soon as practicably possible."
Phthalate critics urged consumers to look at the results of recent tests to determine which companies offer products that are free of phthalates.
"Chemicals linked to birth defects do not belong in products marketed to women," said Schwan. "Would you rather have a little bit of reproductive toxins in the products you use, or no reproductive toxins? The choice of women and mothers we've talked to is clear. Women do not want phthalates in their beauty products."
For more information about product tests that found phthalates in more than 70 percent of beauty products tested in the United States, Britain and Sweden, along with a list of phthalate free products, visit: http://www.NotTooPretty.org
More information on phthalates is available from the Phthalate Ester Panel, an industry group comprised of American Chemistry Council members, at: http://www.phthalates.org/
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2002. All Rights Reserved.
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