Can Beauty Be Dangerous?

By Suzanne D'Amato

The Washington Post
January 27, 2008

Lipstick tainted with lead. Mascara that contains mercury. A hair-straightening treatment that slicks your tresses with protein...and formaldehyde? As three recent controversies show, sometimes the world of beauty can be downright ugly.

Take the lipstick debate. Last fall, a study gave women reason to worry about their war paint: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested 33 lipsticks for lead, from Burt's Bees Lip Shimmer to L'Oreal Colour Riche. They found that 61 percent of the lipsticks tested contained a detectable amount of the contaminant. In fact, several lipsticks exceeded the Food and Drug Administration's lead limit for candy. (The study used candy as a benchmark not only because women ingest both candy and lipstick -- albeit in vastly different amounts -- but also because the FDA does not set lead standards for lipstick.)

Even a minuscule amount of lead is a big problem, says Campaign for Safe Cosmetics spokeswoman Stacy Malkan. "What the companies will often say is, 'There's a little toxin in one product and you can't say it causes harm,' " she says. "But none of us uses just one product." Lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in the body over time, which is why tiny amounts ingested regularly (or in the case of lipstick, multiple times per day) could be hazardous.

Not everyone sees lead in lipstick as quite the issue Malkan does. "Lead is in our environment, even without all the industrial production of chemicals," says John Bailey, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, a D.C.-based trade association. "It's part of the earth...I don't think it really warrants these alarmist conclusions."

Right now, concerned lipstick lovers don't have a lot of options. "The only way to find out if your lipstick has lead is to send it to a lab and pay $150," Malkan says. "I think that's ridiculous, to expect consumers to do that."

It's considerably easier to find out if your mascara contains mercury. Traditionally added as a preservative, the substance is rare in cosmetics these days. When it exists, it's generally in cake mascaras, such as those made by Paula Dorf and La Femme, rather than wand versions. You may see it listed as "thimerosal," a mercury-based compound.

In eye-area cosmetics, the FDA allows mercury if no other effective preservative is available. The concentration can be up to 65 parts per million. That may not sound like much, but the presence of mercury in any amount worries some people. This month, Minnesota imposed a ban on many products containing the substance, including thermostats, medical devices and, yes, mascara.

"It's a potent neurotoxin that can cause brain damage in developing fetuses," Malkan says. "Many women get mercury from fish and other sources. We don't need any more."

Bailey says that the FDA uses a voluntary reporting program for cosmetics ingredients; the program has no current registrations that report mercury being used in the eye area, he says. "We certainly can't count on a voluntary reporting program," Malkan says. "We need a real reporting system." To see whether any products you use contain mercury or other potentially hazardous ingredients, she recommends the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Web site (, which lists information on more than 27,000 cosmetics and personal-care products. That may seem like a high number, but it's a small fraction of what's on the market, Malkan says.

The Skin Deep site is a useful resource: It gives each product a 1-to-10 "hazard score" and offers detailed information on its ingredients. But the site analyzes only over-the-counter products. Salon treatments are not examined -- and for controversial ones such as the Brazilian Keratin treatment, that's unfortunate. The BKT, as it's known, is a hair-straightening process that has smitten women in search of silky, frizz-free tresses. It also contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen.

"It is really, truly what I consider the miracle cure for hair," says Dennis Roche, who offers the treatment at his two Roche salons in the District. Roche says his salons use a formulation that contains "under 2 percent" formaldehyde. But he says the percent concentration is irrelevant -- what matters is the amount of formaldehyde that gets released as fumes when heat is applied. Roche says he minimizes that amount by using cool-air hair dryers and flat irons wrapped in heat-protectant tape.

"I'm going to continue doing this because I see the benefits from it, and I don't believe there's any health risk -- nothing more than hair color or fake nails or anything else," Roche says. "I don't think a little hair color is going to hurt anybody."

The issue, of course, is that it's hard to know. Beauty products and treatments don't have to get FDA approval before hitting store shelves; the FDA mandates such approval only for color additives in cosmetics. Sure, most people probably would agree that you shouldn't eat your lipstick or put mascara on a baby. But beyond that, the definition of "dangerous" comes down to different people's ideas about the effects of accumulated toxins. How much is too much? If experts can't agree, consumers can't be confident either.

"I love the way my hair looks. I'm so happy with it," says Roche client Lauren Stempler, who lives in the District and has gotten the Brazilian Keratin treatment twice. "But it's a hard choice....There is that nagging feeling in me that it might not be worth it."

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