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Think before you slather: how safe are cosmetics?

Millennia ago, Egyptian and Roman women used lead-based face creams and suffered terrible skin complications. You think lead-contaminated cosmetics is a thing of the past? Not at all. In October 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that 61% of the 33 lipsticks tested contained lead with levels ranging up to 0.65 parts per million.

Even more frightening are toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, phthalates and toluene common found in nail polishes. Phthalates have been reported to affect hormone levels and are especially dangerous for pregnant women. Toluene can cause developmental problems for fetuses. Face powders contain titanium dioxide, a carcinogen. Since the skin is a porous organ, the products are absorbed by the body and can lead to health issues.

Unsafe cosmetics is a growing issue because according to the FDA, an average American uses 10 different cosmetic products (hairspray, shampoo, makeup, lotion, and even soap) a day. The cosmetics industry must comply with FDA safety requirements but the multi-billion dollar industry is too expansive for the government agency to enforce the regulations. When a product first hits the shelves, it has not been tested or approved by the FDA. It is only when complaints are filed that the FDA investigates the product and decides whether or not to ban it. The process takes time and many users could be affected before the FDA removes the products from the shelves.

Another problem is the inadequate labeling. Companies are required to state the ingredients but sometimes instead of listing all of the synthetic chemicals contributing to the scent of perfumes, they simply list “fragrance.” Carmine is an insect extract that provides splashes of color to makeup and is usually listed as “color added.” Recently, the FDA concluded that carmine is a common allergen and must be listed on labels.

So before we are fooled by clever marketing and products that promise the stars and moon, remember to exercise caution. Let the user beware.

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