If you got out of the shower this morning, blow-dried your hair and gave your 'do a spritz of VO5 hair spray, you've just poisoned yourself a little bit. If you do this every morning as your regular routine, you are accumulating poisons by the bucketful.
But it's not just VO5 that could make you sick. Try Secret Sheer Dry deodorant or the suitably named Poison, a perfume by Christian Dior. In fact, 52 popular cosmetics are now proven to have toxic components in varying concentrations -- and they are all over the place.
A report released jointly July 10 by advocacy groups Coming Clean, the Environmental Working Group and Health Care Without Harm, details the extent to which a toxic family of chemicals known as phthalates (THAY-lates) are used in everyday household products, especially beauty products like nail polish, lipstick and perfumes.
The report, titled "Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products and the FDA," has its basis in a 1999 FDA study of toxins in the general population of the U.S. The study employed a sample of 1,029 people, and every one of them tested positive for phthalates in their blood or urine. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control singled out a subgroup of 289 people with a particularly high incidence of phthalates: women of childbearing age. These women were found to have daily exposures of phthalates ranging from 2.5 to 22 times that of the general population.
Studies on animals have shown that phthalates can cause a wide array of health problems, from liver and kidney failure to heart, lung and blood pressure problems. The most worrisome aspect by far is phthalates' effect on the reproductive development of fetuses and infants, particularly in males.
Phthalates are metabolized in humans once ingested or absorbed through the skin. In pregnant women, phthalates pass through the placenta to be absorbed by the fetus. In nursing women, phthalates are found in breast milk, which means infants are ingesting these chemicals as they develop. In male fetuses -- and infants especially -- the phthalates have been shown to cause testicular atrophy and a reduced sperm count, among other serious health problems.
Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M University notes that some in the medical community have expressed concerns about phthalate exposure and human health. "It's hard to be specific until more medical data is available," Dr. Safe says, "but if people have concerns, they should limit their use of these products."
In the Health Care Without Harm report, women of childbearing age were shown to be the most at-risk demographic for exposure to the chemicals, and it is reasonable to attribute this to the beauty industry. According to Charlotte Brody, executive director of HCWH, "With all the variables involved, the only one that doesn't apply on a large scale to both men and women is the use of cosmetics."
Phthalates are plasticizers. In cosmetics, they are used to add texture and luster to a product. Ninety percent of the world's plasticizers are used to soften PVC (vinyl) and make it pliable. The other 10 percent have been used in manufacturing for 30 years, beginning with medical products like IV bags, gloves and blood bags, but also paints, lubricants, adhesives, toys, food containers and cosmetics. Phthalates are also found in shower curtains, umbrellas, adhesives and toys. PVC, being incredibly cheap to produce, is the darling of manufacturers the world over. Phthalates enable them to turn PVC into almost anything.
The use of phthalates in manufacturing is so widespread that the chemical has made its way around the world. Traces of it are present in virtually every person on Earth, scientists have found it in Antarctica, and even jellyfish 3,000 feet below the ocean's surface are contaminated with it.
Since the FDA does not regulate the use of phthalates in cosmetics and beauty aids, manufacturers are not required to disclose them as ingredients.
Says the HCWH report: "Taken as a whole, the lab results indicate that a substantial fraction of cosmetics companies may be hiding phthalates on store shelves within the containers of their products, with no warning for pregnant women who might want to avoid purchasing products that contain chemicals linked to birth defects."
In 1999, the FDA studied one phthalate in particular -- DEHP, used in the manufacture of medical supplies -- and found toxic levels of the substance among patients who spend a considerable amount of time in hospitals, mainly newborns and the elderly. But other phthalates, including DEP, DBP, BBP, DCP, DOP and DINP, were last studied nearly 20 years ago. And back then the FDA gave them a clean bill of health.
According to FDA spokesperson Kimberly Rawlings, "Phthalates were shown to be safe for topical use in 1984, and there have been no further studies by the FDA on this subject since then."
Of course the chemical industry couldn't agree more. In a recent Dallas Morning News story on phthalates and the cosmetics industry, Rod Irvin, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council's Phthalate Esters Panel, said, "Phthalates are among the most-studied products out there. They have a long record of safe use, with no reports or evidence of harm to human health." Additionally, the industry group says it has spent "millions" studying the compounds and has found no reason for concern.
The FDA in the past has considered each of these phthalates separately when studying their toxicity. If you're a dialysis patient, then you're at risk for poisoning because you're getting twice the amount of DEHP recommended with each visit. That's bad. But if you're a dialysis patient and you wear a lot of makeup and spend a lot of time playing with your grandchildren and their toys, that's worse.
Not in the many-faceted eyes of the FDA, though. Its consideration of disparate exposure to phthalates is the main loophole manufacturers use to claim that phthalates are safe. Without recognizing that all members of the phthalate family accumulate to cause potential health problems, phthalate manufacturers are able to claim that each individual chemical is not harmful at the documented levels.
HCWH tested 72 brands of nail polish, fragrance, hair spray, deodorant and lotion. Fifty-two of them contained phthalates as ingredients, though none were listed on the labels. Most of the phthalate-containing products are household names: Aqua Net Professional Hair Spray; Degree Original Solid Deodorant; Nivea Creme lotion; Elizabeth Arden's Red Door fragrance; Calvin Klein's Eternity perfume.
As Brody of HCWH points out, this is just the beginning: "It's impossible to know without testing which products contain phthalates. Just because some of the lotions we tried tested negative doesn't mean `all lotions are` clean." Until the manufacturers are required to label phthalates, there's no way to know for sure.
The biggest commotion over phthalates came in 1998, when the Danish government issued a well-publicized ban on toys containing phthalates because of concern that children were being exposed to toxic chemicals when they put toys in their mouths. Lego, the Danish toy maker, quickly responded by phasing out phthalates in the production of its toys.
Despite all this, the battle against phthalates is a stalemate. The European Union bans the chemical in the manufacture of toys for children ages 3 and under, but European manufacturers are lobbying to institute a voluntary reporting system for all other products similar to what is in place in the U.S.
As the HCWH report makes clear, nontoxic alternatives are readily available: "The limited testing done for Not Too Pretty reveals that the same big companies that produce phthalate-laced beauty products also make similar products without phthalates. ... L'Oreal markets Jet Set nail polish without DBP but puts the phthalate in its Maybelline brand."
Without public pressure, however, there will be no incentive for the $20 billion-a-year cosmetics industry to phase out all phthalates. And women who continue to douse themselves in Christian Dior's Poison may be helping the perfume live up to its name.
For more information and the complete list of tested products, go to NotTooPretty.org.
Matt Wheeland is an editorial intern at AlterNet.org.
PRODUCTS WITH PHTHALATE*
*Results (in parts per million)
Red Door (28,000)
Charlie Cologne Spray (21,000)
Fire & Ice Cologne Spray (17,000)
Eternity by Calvin Klein (10,000)
The Healing Garden Pure Joy Body Treatment (7,300)
Poison by Christian Dior (3,400-4,200)
Arrid Extra Extra Dry Ultra Clear Ultra Fresh Spray (2,900-3,300)
Extra Extra Dry Ultra Fresh Spray (1,100)
Degree Original Solid Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant (140)
Dove Solid Anti-Perspirant Deodorant (110)
Secret Powder Fresh Aerosol (63)
Secret Sheer Dry Regular (49)
HAIR GEL AND MOUSSE
Suave Naturals Ocean Breeze Extra Control Spray Gel (130)
Pantene Pro V Mousse Body Builder (75)
TRESemme European Slick Melting Gel (36)
Clairol Herbal Essences Natural Volume Body Boosting Gel (21-57)
Dep Level 4 Shine Gel (14)
VO5 Crystal Clear 14 Hour Hold (1,500)
Aqua Net Professional Hair Spray (250)
Herbal Essences Non Aerosol Hair Spray (210)
Pantene Pro V Strong Hold Spray (84-88)
Suave Maximum Hold Hairspray Unscented (53)
Sebastian Collection Shaper (11)
HAND AND BODY GEL
Calgon Turquoise Seas Body
Nivea Creme (26)
PRODUCTS WITHOUT PHTHALATE
Certain Dri Anti-Perspirant Roll-On
Dove Powder Anti-Perspirant Deodorant
Lady Speed Stick Soft Solid Anti-Perspirant
Secret Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant Platinum Protection Ambition Scent
Soft & Dri Anti-Perspirant Deodorant Clear Gel
Physique Extra Control Structuring Gel Hair
Finesse Touchables Silk Protein Enriched Mousse
Helene Curtis Thermasilk Heat Activated Mousse for Fine/Thin Hair
L'Oreal Paris Studio Line: Springing Curls Mousse Hair spray
Aussie Mega Styling Spray
Helene Curtis Finesse Touchables Silk Protein Enriched
Helene Curtis Thermasilk Heat Activated Firm Hairspray
Suave Naturals Aloe Vera Extra Hold Hairspray
HAND AND BODY LOTION
Curel Soothing Hands Moisturizing Hand Lotion
Eucerin Dry Skin Therapy Original Moisturizing Lotion
Lubriderm Skin Therapy Moisturizing Lotion
Neutrogena Hand Cream
Suave Naturals Sun Ripened Moisturizing Body Lotion
Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Healing
Vaseline Intensive Care Dry Skin Lotion
Kiss Colors Nail Polish
L'Oreal Jet Set Nail Enamel
L'Oreal Jet Set Quick Dry Nail Enamel
Maybelline Shades of Your Nail Color
Naturistics 90 Second Dry! Super Fast Nail Color
Revlon Nail Enamel
Revlon Super Top Speed