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Environmental Factor

May 2011

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Women's history month talk takes aim at cosmetics

By Rachel Person
May 2011

Amy Fox, M.D.

While Fox, above, shares the concerns of such consumer advocates as Leonard, her presentation was balanced as she described the paucity of solid evidence about cosmetic safety. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Cathy Sprankle, left, and Eleni  Salicru, Ph.D.

NIEHS scientists Cathy Sprankle, left, and Eleni Salicru, Ph.D., were among the people who turned out for the presentation, which drew a capacity audience to a meeting room in the EPA conference center. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS employees were among some 75 federal employees and guests attending a Women's History Month presentation by dermatologist Amy Fox, M.D.( Exit NIEHS, on a topic of special interest for many women - the potential toxicity of cosmetics and personal care products. The event, held March 31 at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was hosted by Renee Marshall, EPA Federal Women's chair.

Marshall opened the program by showing a video( Exit NIEHS with consumer advocate and social critic Annie Leonard( Exit NIEHS exploring concerns about the safety of the thousands of chemicals found in products sold in stores worldwide.

A dermatologist's perspective

Fox's presentation was framed around a discussion of cosmetics, recent debates, and, more importantly, the need for people to take the initiative to make safe and healthy choices about personal care products. According to Fox, contrary to what consumers might assume, these over-the-counter (OTC) products are only nominally regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

A third-year resident at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) who will join the faculty of UNC-CH as an assistant clinical professor after her graduation in July, Fox said she became interested in the safety of personal care products when she began to read the ingredients lists carefully. Her interest intensified when she became a mother and saw that even baby care products often included ingredients she'd never heard of before.

Regulation of cosmetics

Fox opened her presentation by making a distinction between what the word cosmetics means to physicians and what it means to consumers. From a dermatologist's perspective, Fox said, cosmetics are FDA-approved and regulated products, such as botox. For the average consumer, however, the term refers to such loosely regulated products as lipstick, mascara, rouge, or any over-the-counter (OTC) personal care product.

As Fox explained, in the 1930s, the FDA became the regulatory body for cosmetics, while leaving safety measures to manufacturers. In 1976, the industry trade association, now known as the Personal Care Products Council, established the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR)( Exit NIEHS panel to perform independent reviews of product components.

The seven-member CIR panel creates an annual list to prioritize the 10,000 possible ingredients that may be found in OTC cosmetics. Unfortunately, only 20 products are evaluated per year, based on two criteria - the frequency certain ingredients are found in OTC products and the level of possible systemic absorption. "How to evaluate them all," said Fox, "is a monumental challenge." She said that fewer than one-tenth of the ingredients consumers can potentially be exposed to have undergone review by CIR.

According to Fox, studies of the toxicity of consumer products have produced mixed results. Although some have found in vitro evidence of genotoxicity in such products as permanent hair dyes, and epidemiological studies have suggested links to cancer, the CIR panel review in 2005 did not substantiate subsequent in vivo evidence.

Caveat emptor

Fox said that the personal care product industry has annual sales of some $50 billion. She reminded the audience that the industry is driven by the profit motive and employs sophisticated marketing techniques to entice buyers with images of purity and beauty. As with any other product, Fox cautions, consumers have a responsibility to be smart about what they buy and take the time to read the labels.

She also warned that so-called natural products are not necessarily any safer. "They can be just as toxic as synthetic products... [and] replete with other ingredients," she said.

(Rachel Person, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the NTP Inorganic Carcinogenesis Branch.)

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