Ami Zota Explains the Common and Great Risks of Cosmetics at Congressional Briefing

EOH Assistant Professor Ami Zota is concerned about the public’s widespread and involuntary exposure to toxic chemicals, and she is not alone. On March 16, Zota and other experts formed a panel for the “Congressional Briefing on the Need for Federal Cosmetic Safety Reform,” organized by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the Breast Cancer Fund, and the Sustainable Business Council. The briefing was held to urge the Senate to review and strengthen the Personal Care Products Safety Act of 2015 (S.1014). Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the proposed legislation in the Senate on April 20, 2015.

The briefing gave members of Congress, their staffers, and the public insight on many issues facing environmental and occupational health professionals now and, without intervention, in the future. As Zota explains, “There is growing scientific consensus around the public health impacts of toxic chemicals. These chemicals enter our bodies through the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the products we use. They can lead to a myriad of health problems early in life, later in life, or even across generations. Indeed, the World Health Organization estimates that as much as 24% of global disease is caused by environmental exposures that can be averted.”

Know Toxins in Common Products, Unknown Risks Abound

While all sources of people’s exposure to toxic chemicals may never be eliminated, through regulation and oversight of the cosmetics industry, policymakers can reduce the U.S. body burden of toxic chemicals. Thousands of chemicals, for which little is known about their health effects, go into making cosmetic products used by most Americans every day. What is known is disturbing. Lead in lipstick. Mercury in facial cream. And, formaldehyde in nail polish and shampoo. Some chemicals used in cosmetics are known or suspected to cause cancer, developmental birth defects, and damage to the reproductive system. Additionally, the health impacts of toxic chemicals have likely been underestimated since most studies focus on the effects of one chemical at a time even though people come in contact with multiple chemicals every day through consumer products.

Phthalates and parabens, commonly found in fragranced lotions, body washes, hair care products, and nail polish, are of particular concern. These chemicals can enter the body through skin, if airborne they can be inhaled or accidentally ingested. As a result, almost all Americans have phthalate and paraben byproducts in their bodies, according to studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phthalate exposures are linked to hormone disruption, and reproductive and developmental toxicity. Higher exposures to certain phthalates may interfere with a women’s ability to become pregnant and may increase the risk of reproductive problems in male offspring. Researchers are also taking a closer look at the role these chemicals may play a role in chronic disease risks including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Complexities of Risk Within Populations

The safety of cosmetics is further complicated by potentially increased vulnerability due to age, gender, race, and profession. Women of childbearing age are the primary consumers of personal care products, spending twice as much on personal care products as their male counterparts. Within that subgroup, Black women spend twice as much on beauty products and services than any other ethnic group. Zota’s research shows that the elevated levels of phthalates among Black women is in part explained by their increased use of vaginal douches, a previously unrecognized source of phthalates. People who work with cosmetics - including barbers, hair stylists, and skin care, body care and nail salon workers - may be more vulnerable to the adverse health effects posed by these products because they handle greater quantities of cosmetics with greater frequency. Workers in the beauty industry are often reproductive-aged women from underrepresented groups so they may be facing higher cumulative exposures from multiple sources in both the home and the workplace.

One’s life stage may also increase risk. Pregnant women, developing fetuses, infants, children, pre-teens and teenagers are especially vulnerable. Exposure to even small amounts of toxic substances during important times of development can affect the very earliest steps of development and lead to lifelong health problems that can persist across generations. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics warns that the links between prenatal exposure to chemicals and poor health outcomes is increasingly evident even at low doses and an urgent need exists to prevent exposures to toxic chemicals globally. 

Policymakers and Consumers Can Improve Safety

While the dangers of consumer products appear widespread and intertwined, they are not unsurmountable. Choosing safer personal care products based on the label does make a difference. Zota explains that in a recent study researchers measured levels of four types of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the bodies of Latina teenagers before and after they began to use off-the shelf products labeled as free of these ingredients. After just three days, some of the chemical levels in teenagers declined by 30 to 50 percent. Additionally, Zota’s study in Environmental Health Perspectives shows that when the government and the market-place act, people’s exposures change. Americans’ exposure to certain phthalates decreased after they were banned from children’s articles in 2008.  Some phthalates that were the focus of market-based campaigns, such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, also went down in Americans.

While the briefing’s organizers acknowledge that the bill could be strengthened in several areas, strong provisions in the Personal Care Products Safety Act of 2015 would advance the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ability to protect Americans’ health by improving current law in the following:

  • Requiring companies to register their facilities, products and ingredients with the FDA;
  • Directing the FDA to assess the safety of a minimum of five cosmetics chemicals a year;
  • Requiring companies to comply with good manufacturing practices; and
  • Closing labeling loopholes by requiring full ingredient disclosure for professional salon products and web-based sales of cosmetic products.

To learn more about the bill and take action, please click here.

“Collectively, the science suggests that changes at the individual and policy level can lead to measurable reductions in toxic chemical exposure,” says Zota.