Masquerade: Birth defects, cancer, infertility, precocious puberty… the ugly truths behind the beauty industry

From the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
According to industry estimates, on any given day an average consumer may use as many as 25 different cosmetic and personal care products, including shampoo, nail polish, aftershave and lotion, containing more than 200 different chemical compounds.  

A common assumption within the cosmetics industry is that 70 per cent of what is applied to the skin is absorbed into the body. It is not surprising, then, that many dangerous chemicals have gotten into our bodies, our breast milk and our children. Some of these chemicals are linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems that are on the rise in the human population. Some chemicals found in a variety of cosmetics are listed by the EPA as carcinogens or reproductive toxins. 

While chemicals in any one product alone are unlikely to cause harm, repeated exposures to industrial chemicals from many different sources on a daily basis add up over time. Chemicals from multiple products used every day may also interact in the body, causing even more harm.   

Cancer-causing compounds

According to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which examined ingredients in more than 15,000 personal care products, one of every 100 products on the market contains ingredients certified by government authorities as known human carcinogens, including shampoos, lotions, make-up foundations, and lip balms. An astonishing one-third of all products contain one or more ingredients classified as possible human carcinogens.

EWG also found that 71 hair dye products contain ingredients derived from carcinogenic coal tar. Coal tar-containing products include dyes made by Clairol, Revlon, L’Oreal, and others. Coal tar hair dyes are one of the few products for which FDA has issued consumer advice on the benefits of reducing use, in this case as a way to potentially ‘reduce the risk of cancer’ (FDA 1993). These products are of great concern to the health of women of colour. For example, according to industry data, 42 per cent of African-American women colour their hair in a salon. African-Americans are almost twice as likely to die of cancer than any other minority group, and 20 per cent more likely than whites.  

According to EWG’s research, nearly 70 per cent of all products contain ingredients that can be contaminated with impurities linked to cancer and other health problems. Studies by FDA and European agencies show that in some cases these impurities occur in nearly half of all products tested (FDA 1996, DTI 1998). Some manufacturers buy ingredients certified by an independent organisation called United States Pharmacopeia (USP), which may contain lower levels of harmful impurities, but the criteria for certification are not public. Some companies may purchase or manufacture refined, purified ingredients, but many do not. Consumers and government health officials have no way to know. 

Laws and regulation do not protect us

Major loopholes in federal law allow the multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry to put unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no monitoring of health effects, and inadequate labelling requirements. According to the government agency that regulates cosmetics, the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, ‘… a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from the FDA’ (FDA 1999).  


The solution: make safer products available globally

In January 2003, the European Union amended their Cosmetics Directive to require cosmetics companies to remove all chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects from all personal care products sold in the EU beginning in 2004.  

Companies like Procter & Gamble and Avon have so far failed to meet Europe’s new safety standards in markets outside Europe, even though a few companies like L’Oreal and Estee Lauder have taken that basic, initial step towards safer products globally.

Safe cosmetics are possible, and the EU’s progress proves that companies can make products safer without disrupting the marketplace!

Published in Kindred, issue 22, June 07

Excerpted from Face Facts: Toxic Chemicals in Bodycare Products (from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics).
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics ( is a coalition of public health, educational, faith, labour, women’s, environmental and consumer groups. Our goal is to protect the health of consumers and workers by requiring the health and beauty industry to phase out the use of chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins. 
Founding groups of the campaign include: Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, The Breast Cancer Fund, Commonweal, Environmental Working Group, Free the Planet!, Friends of the Earth, National Environmental Trust, National Black Environmental Justice Network, Women’s Voices for the Earth.


Environmental Working Group, Skin Deep, 2004. Accessed online
July 29, 2004 at
Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) (2003). 2003 CIR Compendium, containing abstracts, discussions, and conclusions of CIR cosmetic ingredient safety assessments. Washington DC.
Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) (2004). CIR information available at, accessed May 6 2004.
Department of Trade and Industry, UK (DTI) (1998). A survey of cosmetic and certain other skin-contact products for nitrosamines.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (1993). Hair Dye Dilemmas. FDA Consumer. April 1993. Accessed online May 6 2004 at
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (1995). FDA Authority over Cosmetics.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Office of Cosmetics and Colors Fact Sheet. February 3 1995. Accessed online May 6 2004 at
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (1996). Are nitrosamines in cosmetics a health hazard? Accessed online May 6 2004 at Updated November 1996.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (1999). Diethanolamine and Cosmetic Products. Office of Cosmetics and Colors Fact Sheet. Dec 9, 1999. Accessed online May 6 2004 at
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (2000). Prohibited Ingredients and Related Safety Issues. Office of Cosmetics and Colors Fact Sheet. March 30, 2000. Accessed online May 20 2004 at

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