You're already counting calories or carbs, measuring your weight and your BMI, monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol. Do you really need another health-related number to reckon with?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit public-interest research group known for making connections between chemical exposure and adverse health conditions, thinks you may. The Washington-based organization has made it easy to calculate your risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances through the personal care products you use. In its new "Skin Deep" study, funded by the Heinz Family Foundation, the Beldon Fund and the John Merck Fund, EWG uses a complex formula to assign a health-risk rating to each of 7,500 personal-care products.
In EWG's assessment, Just For Men Brush-In Color Gel for Mustache, Beard & Sideburns, Natural Real Black merits a whopping 9.5 score (on a scale of 0 to 10, the top end reflecting the highest risk). Rite Aid Pure Baby Oil comes in for a tiny 1.1 rating. In between are Crest Rejuvenating Effects Liquid Gel Toothpaste (4.3) and Speed Stick Deodorant Solid, Fresh Scent at 5.3. EWG says all those products impose a cumulative chemical load about which too little is known.
The rating system offers a means of quantifying the answer to a controversial question: Just what are we doing to ourselves when we slather stuff on our bodies? At first blush, the numbers may scare you. Dig deeper and you'll find much that could temper your fear -- or, depending on your point of view, fire your temper.
People like Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) applaud EWG's work, saying it's time for the cosmetics industry to change. "Consumers need better information about the ingredients used in their personal care products," said DeGette. "Providing consumers with better access to this information is an important first step."
But the industry says the public shouldn't fear its products. Gerald McEwen, vice president for science of the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA), maintains that "cosmetics really are safe. There are not a huge number of complaints, and no evidence of a lot of health problems from their use."
In any case, the context for any possible risks need to be taken into account. Michael Thun, head of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, says that "evidence doesn't support the view [that cosmetics are major contributors to cancer risk] at all. If cosmetics pose any [cancer] risk at all, that risk is very small compared to known major risks like smoking, [poor] nutrition, obesity and physical inactivity and sunlight."
EWG itself encourages a moderate response to the data. EWG project director Jane Houlihan says Skin Deep's findings are "cause for concern, but not alarm."
Finding your cosmetics risk rating is easy and even kind of fun: Just go to the "Skin Deep" report (www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep/) and type in the brand name of your deodorant, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and whatever else you use. (EWG research shows the typical adult uses nine such products per day.) The site will tell you how many ingredients the products collectively contain (the average adult load is 126 unique chemicals, says EWG), and rate the aggregate health threat those ingredients may pose.
Each product is ranked according to its ingredients' potential to cause cancer, trigger allergic reactions, interfere with the endocrine (hormonal) system, impair reproduction or damage a developing fetus; any harmful impurities in the product are also considered. Containing unstudied ingredients or a "penetration enhancer" that helps chemicals get absorbed through the skin also enter into the equation, as does any violation of industry safety recommendations surrounding its use.
EWG compiled a master list of ingredients in personal-care products and compared those components with known and suspected chemical health hazards on government, industry and academic lists.
Not all sources carry equal weight in the EWG formula. The presence of progesterone on the federal government's list of known or suspected carcinogens helps bump the rating for DDF Organic Sunblock, SPF 30, to 8.5. Meanwhile, said Houlihan, less weight is given to a list offered by authors of the controversial book "Our Stolen Future" (OSF), which examines synthetic chemicals' potential threat to the endocrine system. And so the presence of the so-called parabens chemicals (butyl-, methyl, ethyl-, and propyl-) had less of an effect on the rating of Peter Thomas Roth Titanium Dioxide Sunblock SPF 30, which received a 7.0 score. OSF-supplied data show the parabens may alter hormone levels, but the industry's safety review panel calls them "safe as used."
Industry, Police Thyself
One of the key data sources of the EWG report is the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel, the industry's voluntary oversight body. Cosmetics aren't subject to the same federal regulation that drugs and foods receive; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't conduct pre-market reviews or safety checks of cosmetics or their ingredients.
In the absence of such controls, the CIR conducts reviews of scientific data regarding ingredients that have come to its attention, usually because their use is becoming more widespread or because published research raises safety concerns. The group conducts a few dozen reviews each year. The CIR doesn't conduct scientific studies of its own but relies on research done by others, including manufacturers.
The CIR maintains a list of chemical ingredients and guidelines for their use, based on available data, which in many cases is scant. Some are considered "safe as used," others are deemed safe to use under set circumstances, and some are labeled unsafe. Cosmetics manufacturers are supposed to consult this list and follow its instructions when formulating their products. Consumers are welcome to check the list, too: it's online at www.cir-safety.org/findings.shtml.
By FDA regulation, items whose ingredients haven't been shown to be safe are supposed to say so on their labels. According to the EWG, none of the products in the Skin Deep database bore such a label, despite the fact that 356 products contained ingredients for which the CIR had insufficient data to support their safe use in cosmetics.
Other products draw EWG's fire for containing ingredients that are used in ways other than those dictated by the CIR. For instance, Pond's Clear Solutions Overnight Blemish Reducers -- which are applied directly to the skin -- pull an 8.8 rating for containing butyl methacrylate, a substance for which CIR's instructions are to "avoid skin contact."
The study "revealed major gaps in the regulatory safety net for consumers," Houlihan said. "When only 11 percent of the ingredients in personal care products have been assessed, that leaves a large room for unknown risk." Houlihan said the EWG is particularly concerned about the risks posed by cosmetics ingredients over time and in combinations.
McEwen of the CTFA said "the FDA has ample authority to be able to take action" if ingredients are misused. Those actions include seizing products found to be unsafe or misbranded and to prosecute those who sell them. "The law is absolutely clear. Companies are not allowed to put on the market a product that's not safe or has unsafe ingredients," he said. FDA action can include "throwing [violators] in jail."
"I'm sure that someone looking at that would not allow themselves to be placed in that position," McEwen said.
But Linda Katz, director of the FDA's office of cosmetics and colors, said the agency's lack of authority to require pre-market safety testing makes it difficult to enforce the law.
"Since we don't do pre-market approval, we don't necessarily know" whether a company has conducted tests to establish ingredient safety or not. If the agency does find out -- usually through adverse-event reports -- that a dangerous ingredient is present without a warning label, "we can say the item is misbranded and take action."
Killing Me Softly With Lip Balm?
Searching the EWG report's Web site can be discomfiting. The usual suspects -- such as hair dyes, long under scrutiny for the health risks they might pose -- take a hit here. For instance, Clairol Natural Instincts Haircolor, Level 2, Sahara 02 gets a 10 for its potentially cancer-causing ingredients. But more unsettling are high ratings attached to such apple-pie products as Neutrogena, whose Transparent Skin Care Bar scored high at 8.1, and ChapStick, whose mint lip balm scored 7.4.
But digging deeper into the site can muffle your alarm. Neutrogena Transparent Skin Facial Bar's bad rating, for instance, is based in part on the carcinogenic potential of a chemical called triethanolamine, which the report found in 987 products. Follow the link to learn that this substance's connection to cancer is ill-defined and of concern only when this chemical is combined with another and left on the skin rather than washed away. It's considered safe for rinse-off use by the CIR panel.
The scores of 535 products are adversely affected by the presence of petrolatum -- basically good ol' petroleum jelly, which in its pure form is considered safe. But petrolatum's varied and unregulated manufacturing procedures make the goop vulnerable to contamination by foreign elements, which may -- or may not -- pose cancer risks or other health concerns.
Fifty-six percent of the products in EWG's database contain penetration enhancers, widely used in FDA-regulated drugs as well as in cosmetics to help active ingredients get through the skin. EWG notes that penetration enhancers can be troublesome if they help other chemicals -- including possible carcinogens -- get under your skin, too. But in EWG's database, the presence of a penetration enhancer worsens a product's score whether or not there's another worrisome chemical present in the formula. Having both a penetration enhancer and a possible carcinogen brings the score even closer to 10.
Nor is the Skin Deep system entirely rational: RID Lice Shampoo, which contains pyrethrins, pesticides suspected of causing neurological damage, has a modest 5.9 rating. This is far "safer" than TIGI Bed Head, Dumb Blonde Shampoo, which gets its 8.5 mark for having lots of unstudied chemicals, penetration enhancers and potential harmful impurities. (No word on whether the product's name influenced its score.)
Acknowledging that in this case something "fell through the cracks," Houlihan says the inconsistency will be addressed in updated versions of the report.
In the end, the study's main message is less about what we know can hurt us than about the vast universe of unknowns. The rating system yields high numbers not only for products whose chemical makeup is likely to do harm but for those containing lots of possibly benign ingredients that consumers have no way of distinguishing from the nasty stuff. A product label listing "silica," for example, gives the consumer no guidance as to whether the ingredient is the carcinogenic crystalline silica or another form of the substance not thought to cause harm.
A Call for Regulation
EWG has garnered much attention, both from the media and from government agencies, for calling attention to the presence of arsenic in playground equipment and deck wood, and PCBs in farmed salmon. Their findings have been disputed by the industries they target, but some have led to changes in federal regulations. For instance, the group's work with arsenic in wooden play sets helped encourage a federal ban on arsenic's application to wood used in backyard structures.
A week after releasing its "Skin Deep" report, the EWG petitioned the FDA to, among other things, order recalls of cosmetics that contain ingredients that haven't been established as safe and yet don't carry a warning label. It has also asked the agency to require manufacturers to stop using ingredients that contain toxic impurities or that might combine with other ingredients to form such impurities.
The Skin Deep site offers a link by which you can send an adverse-effect report to the FDA if you have a bad reaction to a cosmetic.
"We need fundamental changes in the way cosmetics are regulated in this country," said Richard Wiles, EWG's senior vice president. "First, we need a definition of what 'safe' is. And cosmetics need to conform to the same safety standards as other chemicals" in foods and drugs that are regulated by the FDA.
The FDA's Katz said she couldn't comment on the EWG petition because it is currently before the agency. Nor had she or her colleagues fully digested the EWG report in time to comment on it in detail for this article.
But she did say that "the bottom line is that cosmetics have been used in this country for a very long time, and their ingredients are generally safe." Still, she said, "We will carefully look at the [EWG] report to make an assessment as to whether there are ingredients that need further study."
Jennifer Huget is a regular contributor to the Health section.