In the name of beauty, men and women assault their bodies with chemicals that can cause itching, swelling, oozing, redness, damaged -- or even loss of -- hair.

Cosmetics are a mystery to most people. Who knows how each product works, or what the ingredients on the labels mean? Yet Americans will spend over $12 billion this year for cosmetics.

One Washington-area foursome -- Tom Conry, Nancy and David Fry, and Alan Okagaki (who has since left the area) spent about two years researching the lore and lure of cosmetics, their ingredients and the economics behind the gargantuan industry. The result: collaboration on the book, "Consumer's Guide to Cosmetics" (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 376 pages, paperback, $3.95). g

Tom Conry, a chemist with the privately funded Environmental Action Foundation ("We anticipate tougher times, but we'll be there"), and writer-researcher David Fry, collaborated a few years ago on a "Household Pollutants Guide." Fry also wrote a book, "99 Ways to a Simple Lifestyle," in which one chapter explored alternatives to commercially produced cosmetics.

Writer Nancy Fry (David Fry's wife) became interested in cosmetics through her work with public-interest groups and as a counselor for women in transition, such as changing careers or seeking work outside the home.

"We are faced with a 'misery of choice,' a glut of products," says Fry, who researched the history and psychology of cosmetics. One reason for writing the book, she says, was to "give a basis for reading and interpreting labels."

But as the book points out, even reported dangers are not necessarily a deterrent to the use of a product. Remember the National Cancer Institute's 1977 report that a chemical (4MMPD) found in many permanent hair dyes caused cancer in test animals? And the follow-up surveys showing that women who used these hair dyes would continue to do so, even though they were aware of possible risks?

The use of cosmetics, says Nancy Fry, relates very much to the way society sees women and "the way women see themselves. I am also disturbed at the way old people are depicted in cosmetic advertisements; aging is presented as a destructive process."

Says David Fry, "I never really considered myself a cosmetics user until I looked in the bathroom cabinet and saw the products I have: shampoo, suntan preparations, shaving goods, skin lotion."

Referring to what he calls the "cosmetic functions of cosmetics," Fry points to some products' ingredients that have nothing to do with their functions. For instance, an aerosol shave cream with 11 ingredients had 6 that were propellants -- added soley to get the cream out of the can.

Chemist (and book coordinator) Conry is most concerned about the regulation of cosmetics.

"The Food and Drug Administration," he says, "doesn't know the extent of reactions to certain ingredients. The agency has neither the power to mandate very detailed reporting by manufacturers, nor is there a uniform system."

Nitrosamines, which are known to cause cancer in laboratory animals and have been found in some shampoos and skin creams, Conry says, "still have makers and government scratching their heads over long-term effects. It worries me that there are no warnings to consumers."

Says David Fry: "FDA's budget is down in real dollars, plus the bite taken by inflation, so cosmetic research and enforcement is necessarily limited."

While the authors do not suggest all products pose health or safety hazards, they do believe, as Fry puts it, "the industry has taken a stance of minimizing problems over the years." For example, 8 of the 10 ingredients now banned by FDA for cosmetic use were once the main ingredients in deodorants and anti-perspirants.

Conry notes that the Toxic Substances Strategy Commission recommended to then President Carter stricter regulations of cosmetics. Among other "problem ingredients and areas," listed by Conry and included in the book:

Formaldehyde -- used as a preservative in over 1,000 cosmetics. "A known sensitizer, and is a suspected carcinogen."

Fragrances -- when added to cosmetics need not have ingredients listed. Can cause allergy, dermatitis and sometimes photosensitization (skin eruptions and scars from sunlight).

Using material collected from trade journals, medical research, government publications and through contact with industry and federal officials, the authors explain how various products work on the hair and skin. They give guidelines for choosing products, the benefits of cosmetics, chemicals to avoid, a glossary of terms, a dictionary of ingredients and instructions for comparing price and content. One section of the appendix outlines how to report a cosmetic problem.

Each chapter of the "Consumer's Guide" has self-contained information. Thus, the section on hair straighteners gives the what, how and why, as well as health and safety considerations. This precludes searching the whole volume for information on one class of products.

The authors also provide lists of chemicals that are irritants and ones known to cause allergies.

The next big breakthrough for the cosmetics industry, Conry believes, will be in the male market.

"Fifteen years ago, there was Vitalis, a deodorant or two and a few fragrances made just for men."

One book chapter, devoted entirely to shaving, characterizes the task for the clean-shaven male as "formidable:" 16,000 whiskers cover a man's face; 3,350 hours will be spent shaving off 27.5 feet of whiskers during 55 years of shaving.

To make that task less formidable, there is a discussion of wet blade vs. dry, shaving soaps, creams, aerosols and "razor bumps."

While the cosmetics market is still overwhelmingly female, men are buying more products each year. They, too, are vulnerable to oily or dry skin, limp or flyaway hair, or for that matter fashion.

But as Tom Conry reminds, "There is nothing magic about cosmetics."

. . . "We should try," said the book, "to determine exactly what they can do for us, what they cannot do, and what harm we might incur from their use. By resisting the impulse to slap on anything with a seductive scent or flashy dispenser, we are paying the respect due our bodies." s