Facing the Consequences

The FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing.       — FDA Office of Cosmetics and Colors

This may amaze you but by law the Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to approve cosmetic products or ingredients, except for color additives before they are sold to the public, Amy Rice reports. In addition, the FDA does not require manufacturers to file data on ingredients or report cosmetic-related injuries.

How bad is it?
Often, cosmetics reach the marketplace with ingredients that are inadequately tested, not tested at all, or actually known to cause potentially grave health hazards. The small amount of cosmetic testing that does take place is voluntary and controlled by the manufacturers, and many components are never tested. When the Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog organization, evaluated the cosmetic industry, they found that 89% of the 10,500 ingredients they studied had not been safety tested by any publicly accountable institution.

The cosmetic industry is supposed to regulate itself through a panel called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR).  Only 28 of the 7,500 products the Environmental Working Group examined were fully tested for safety by CIR. That means 99.6% of the products examined contain at least one ingredient never assessed for possible health hazards by the official panel. One of every 120 products available at your grocery store contains ingredients certified as known or probable human carcinogens, according to the Environmental Working Group.  They also found that one-third of all cosmetics in the marketplace contained at least one ingredient classified as a possible human carcinogen.

In the 67 years that the FDA has been “regulating” cosmetic safety, the agency has banned or restricted just nine cosmetic ingredients.  Compare this with the European Union, where 450 ingredients are banned for use in personal care products.

Polyethylene Glycol
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is a common additive in cosmetics. PEG compounds can contain various harmful impurities, according to a report published in the International Journal of Toxicology.  Some of these impurities are believed to increase your risk of cancer.  PEGs are used as cleansers, emulsifiers, skin conditioners, surfactants and humectants. They are listed on labels as PEG, PEG-6, PEG-150, etc.  They are present in many products on the market today with mousse, hair dye and bath wash containing the most.

PEG impurities include:

  • Ethylene oxide: Ethylene oxide increases the incidences of uterine and breast cancers and of leukemia and brain cancer, according to the National Toxicology Program.
  • 1,4-dioxane: In experimental studies, this highly dangerous compound increased incidence of cancer in the liver, lungs and gallbladder. In other studies, it caused increased incidences of skin tumors.  The National Toxicology Program calls it “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
  • Polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAHs): Shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.

PEGs may also include heavy metals such as lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium and arsenic.

In spite of concerns, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review concludes that many PEG compounds “are safe for use” in cosmetics stipulating only that PEG compounds should “not be used on damaged skin.” PEG compounds remain a common ingredient in our cosmetics.  However, 23 PEG compounds have been earmarked by the CIR as “high priority” for initiation of safety reviews in 2005.

Your options
Read the label. Avoid anything with PEG compounds, and, steer clear of anything with chemical additives you cannot identify.  Organic cosmetics or those with pure ingredients are less likely to contain PEGs, but many natural ingredients have not been examined for safety at all.

Now we’re not advocating more testing on any creature, human or non-human, for something as ultimately trivial as make-up.  So maybe we should all reconsider how much make-up, shampoo and other chemicals we really need to use each day.  There are obviously special exceptions for disfigurements that require cosmetic attention but most of us look nice enough with clean hair and a big smile! (My grandmother never used shampoo on her hair. She would just comb it through with lavender water. Kelly.)


Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) is frequently used in so-called “skin peelers,” wrinkle creams and many other cosmetics. However. since 1989, the Food and Drug Administration has received more than 100 reports of adverse reactions from people using alpha hydroxy acid products. Their complaints included severe redness, swelling (especially in the area of the eyes), burning, blistering, bleeding, rash, itching and skin discoloration.  A recent study sponsored by the cosmetics industry indicates that AHA may make users more sensitive to sunlight and especially to ultraviolet radiation. UV exposure from the sun can damage the skin and at high doses, especially over a long period, can cause skin cancer.

To find out if a cosmetic contains an AHA, look on the list of ingredients all cosmetics must, by law, have on their outer packaging. AHA ingredients may be listed as:

glycolic acid

lactic acid

malic acid

citric acid

glycolic acid + ammonium glycolate

alpha-hydroxyethanoic acid + ammonium alpha-hydroxyethanoate

alpha-hydroxyoctanoic acid

alpha-hydroxycaprylic acid

hydroxycaprylic acid

mixed fruit acid

tri-alpha hydroxy fruit acids

triple fruit acid

sugar cane extract

alpha hydroxy and botanical complex

L-alpha hydroxy acid

glycomer in crosslinked fatty acids alpha nutrium (three AHAs).

Resources: Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Report http://www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep.

Guest Contributor

Self-Reliance Central publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of SRC. Reproduced with permission.