Cosmetics of all sorts—shampoos, makeup, deodorants, moisturizers—are among the most widely used products in modern America. The idea that chemicals in these products might be a source of disease or even death naturally would lead to great consternation among cosmetic users. Thus, reports that a widely used family of chemicals, phthalates, are commonly found in many cosmetic products and are linked to cancer and reproductive harm is understandably alarming to many consumers.
Where Did the Scare Come From?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other associated groups published on their website reports and press releases in 2000 and 2002 condemning the use of phthalates in cosmetics such as nail polish, hair spray and deodorants.(62) In June 2004, EWG released yet another report accusing a variety of cosmetic manufacturers of using ingredients that increase the risk of pregnancy problems and/or cancer. The report lists a number of products to which it assigned a “health concern score.”(63) The report further demands that, in order to “improve the safety of personal care products,” manufacturers cease to use any ingredients classified as “known or possible human carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and developmental toxins.”
The Media Coverage:
Some mainstream media coverage of EWG’s initial attacks on phthalates was responsible and balanced, quoting both the group’s charges as well as refutations from industry representatives and government scientists.(64) In contrast, some Internet sites (e.g., those of AlterNet) presented extremely skewed reports, accepting without question the hypothesis that phthalates are deadly components of many cosmetics,(65) with headlines like “Are Your Beauty Products Killing You?”
Later coverage of the phthalates/chemicals-in-cosmetics issue varied widely. The Wall Street Journal reported in spring 2004 that two cosmetic manufacturers had reformulated their nail polishes to remove phthalates.(66) Responsibly, the Journal article noted that while “there is no proof that DBP [a phthalate] harms humans, some evidence indicates the chemical can cause adverse reproductive effects in laboratory animals, particularly among the male offspring of females exposed to high levels.” The article also noted that, according to the National Toxicology Program Americans, in general, are not exposed to levels high enough to warrant concern. The L.A. Times also presented a story on phthalates with a low-key headline: “Questions about some cosmetics.”(67) The coverage was even-handed, noting that lab animals fed phthalates at high doses had male offspring with reproductive system defects, but balancing that observation with a statement that an FDA advisory group had declared that phthalates posed no threat to humans at the low levels at which humans are exposed. Not all coverage was so balanced—The Guardian, a British paper, presented a lengthy supplement that listed 18 cosmetic products, ranging from shaving cream to toothpaste, and described which of their ingredients could be harmful.(68)
Later stories homed in on the putative reproductive risk from cosmetic ingredients. “Beauty for two; Moms-to-be lay off cosmetic treatments”(69) was the headline of a Boston Herald story about how famous models and actresses are eschewing some items during pregnancy such as, among other purported menaces, fast-drying nail polish, herbal wraps, and bikini waxes. A couple of quotes from non-famous expectant moms wrapped up the decidedly superficial coverage. While the article noted that some consumer advocates say the phthalates in nail polish have caused harm in animal studies, there was no balancing statement from any scientific authority. Alternet continued to fan the flames of chemicalphobia with an article urging that the United States ban carcinogens and reproductive toxins in cosmetics.(70) And in California, the L.A. Times reported an attempt by an assemblywoman to introduce a bill to ban phthalates, as well as other chemicals. Her bill also would have required cosmetic companies to provide the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment with lists of all product ingredients.(71) The bill didn’t pass. The article did note industry objections that “there was no evidence that the traces [of phthalates] in personal care products caused harm.”
Finally, the anti-phthalate agitators are following a tried-and-true tactic. They’re asserting that cosmetic chemicals are a danger to children. Citing “experts” at the EWG, Friends of the Earth and the Women’s Environmental Network, the Independent declared “Children at risk from cosmetics” on May 30, followed on June 1 by an article in the Scotsman stating “Too many products carry chemical danger to children.”(72,73)
The Bottom Line:
The EWG and its fellow travelers have invested a great deal of work in publicizing supposed health risks from myriad chemicals that have long been in everyday use with no evidence of harm to humans. The groups promoting the scares routinely cite high-dose animal test data showing the chemical in question is an animal carcinogen. High-dose test results, however, often are poor predictors of what will happen after low-dose exposure to a substance, and the types of exposure used in animal tests (e.g., incorporating the test substance into the animals’ feed) may not be relevant to the use of the same substance in cosmetics. While it is true that phthalates are found in many cosmetic and household items, they are present in only minuscule amounts.
ACSH convened a blue-ribbon panel to evaluate the supposed health threats posed by phthalates.(74) The panel, which included experts on toxicology, medicine, and risk assessment, concluded that the scientific evidence did not support alarmist charges of danger from phthalates.
As is often the case, anti-chemical activists attempt to foment fear based on high-dose animal laboratory tests that, alone, are not good predictors of human cancer risk. In contrast, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has scientifically sound information on phthalates; for at least two of the chemicals that have often been singled out by antichemical activists, DHP and DEHP, the ATSDR states that exposures are too low to present a risk to human health.(75) In some cases, as described above, media outlets attempted to balance chemophobic hyperbole with expert scientific opinions, but there are still too many cases where the hyperbole wins out.