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Cosmetics Industry Under Fire

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Issue: 27 Section: Health Geography: Europe Berlin, Germany Topics: Women

March 28, 2005

Cosmetics Industry Under Fire

Health effects of chemicals, endocrine disruptors, "penetration enhancers" questioned

by Andrea Smith

Women and men in Berlin marked International Women's day by drawing attention to the relationship between women and chemicals -- X is the symbol for toxic chemicals. Photo: Beatrice Vohler, wecf.org
On March 8th, women around the world acted to acknowledge their struggle for equality and justice. For some, this year's International Women's Day served as a platform from which to draw attention to a range of issues typically not identified as affecting women in particular- including chemical contamination.

"Women are particularly at risk from dangerous chemicals, through their work, at home, in the family or when shopping," said Sascha Gabizon, Director of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF). As research continues to reveal how chemicals such as endocrine disruptors act to affect fetal development, while others bioaccumulate and can be passed on through breast milk, chemical hazards has come to be understood as a women's issue. WECF was one of several organizations which came together to organize the Women and Chemicals March 8th action where over a hundred women and men gathered in Berlin to form a massive X out of cloth -- the symbol for toxic chemicals.

The action was coordinated by a coalition of environmental and women's organization, and was a show of support for REACH, a draft law in the European Union that requires the registration, evaluation and authorization of all chemicals. Should REACH be approved in its strongest form, REACH could lead to the identification and phasing out of many harmful chemicals within three years of its implementation. The task remains a daunting one, particularly given the paucity of information on toxicity and health effects on most chemicals.

Women are particularly at risk of being exposed to chemicals whose short and long-term health effects are unknown though the use of cosmetics, shampoos, creams and other personal care products. Exposure to chemicals found in personal care products can occur through absorption through the skin, or through being ingested after application. Some companies, such as L'Oreal and Estee Lauder, are now adding nanoparticles to their products to act as "penetration enhancers" -- to deliver ingredients even deeper into the skin. Some worry that these particles ability to breech the skin - whose purpose is to keep harmful substances out -- may have unintended consequences for user's health.

In the United States, only 11 percent of the 10,500 cosmetic ingredients on the market have been reviewed at all -- and those evaluations have been conducted by the industry-sponsored Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Although the US FDA does not require safety testing on cosmetics, they do require companies to post a warning label on personal care products that have not been safety tested. After pressure from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the US EPA warned companies to comply with the law or face persecution. Should companies comply, EWG estimates that over 99% of cosmetic products could be labeled.

According to Health Canada's Cosmetics Programme, "only ingredients that do not pose an unreasonable health and safety risk to the Canadian public, when used according to directions, are allowed in cosmetic products." Like the US, cosmetic companies are not required to submit information on product safety to Health Canada. Industry is only required to notify Health Canada of the full ingredients in cosmetics. However, Health Canada can request that the manufacture provided safety information. With recent changes to the Cosmetics Regulation, companies will be required to notify consumers of the full ingredients of cosmetic products by 2006. It is hoped that this labeling will enable consumers to avoid products that are of concern to them, and assist individuals to identify ingredients to which they have sensitivities.

But it is likely that labeling alone will be no match for the million-dollar cosmetics industry's advertising campaigns. Long-time recipient of criticism, the cosmetic industry has faced accusations of marketing an image of youth and whiteness -- a physical image few resemble yet damaging to the physical and social well being of many. And as the events of this International Women's Day suggest, it is likely that potential health hazards from chemical exposure will be added to the list.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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