Published 21/03/2005 in the Expat.Telegaph
Britain's £6 billion cosmetics and toiletries industry is facing calls to tighten up safeguards on its chemical ingredients. Just how safe are our lipsticks and moisturisers, asks Judith Woods
The recent health scare over the infiltration of the carcinogenic dye Sudan 1 into our food has shaken public confidence. Not only is Sudan 1 illegal, but Sudan 2 and 4 have been banned since 1976.
Yet, according to a new book, A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (by Ruth Winter, Three Rivers Press, US), Sudan 3 is still being used in cosmetics. Does this represent a health risk? Should we be concerned about the presence of a substance whose three sister-dyes are deemed dangerous to human health?
Sudan 3, otherwise known as Solvent Red 23, is a reddish-brown powder used in colouring for waxes, oils, stains, dyes and resins. It is legal, but, according to cosmetics legislation, it must not be used near mucous membranes as it can cause irritation.
Although it isn't found in eye make-up, or in any cosmetics that come into contact with the mouth or nasal passages, it may be present in skin creams and lotions, and will be listed as C1 26100.
"Sudan 3 is related to Sudan 1, chemically speaking, but only very loosely," says Dr Stephen Antczak, research chemist and co-author of Cosmetics Unmasked, a guide to make-up ingredients. "The right-hand side of the molecule is the same, but the left-hand side is completely different.
"In a chemical, even a subtle variation can entirely alter its behaviour. I would liken the relationship between Sudan 1 and Sudan 3 to that of non-identical twins, one of whom is a psychopath and the other a pillar of society."
While this may offer some reassurance to jittery consumers, campaigners on cosmetic safety have renewed their calls for tighter safeguards on a host of ingredients used by the UK's £6 billion cosmetics and toiletries industry.
"There's a general assumption among people along the lines of: 'If the Government permits the use of various chemicals, they won't make me or my family ill'," says Judith May, spokeswoman for Allergy UK. "But people need to be more careful about the sort of products they choose to use. More than 40 per cent of the UK population is now affected by allergies. Over-exposure to chemicals can trigger a sensitivity that may lead to an allergy such as asthma, eczema or hay fever."
A list of commonly used cosmetic ingredients makes alarming reading, although the industry's representative body, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) consistently points out that the amounts of each chemical used are tiny.
Coal tar, found in eye shadow, has been linked to cancer. Lipsticks can also contain high levels of artificial colourings made from coal tar derivatives, which can cause allergic reactions. Liquid foundation may contain highly carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines. Cream foundation ingredients can include formaldehyde and the preservative propyl paraben, which have both been linked to cancer.
Parabens act as preservatives and are present in most moisturisers and some deodorants - although they are skin and eye irritants and have also been found to mimic the female hormone oestrogen.
The quantities of these substances are, of course, minute. But according to Charlotte Vohtz, a pharmacologist and founder of the organic Green People Company, most women absorb around 2kg of chemicals through cosmetic products every year.
Scientists have shown that chemicals in cosmetics can pass through the skin, into the bloodstream and internal organs. Oily solutions such as moisturiser and foundation are designed to be absorbed. Lipstick is swallowed, and both eye shadow and mascara can be absorbed by the mucous membranes.
After years of lobbying by consumer pressure groups, the EU has banned chemical compounds called phalates which were used in cosmetics for many years, despite their links to hormone disruption, and hence reproductive health.
Phalates, which are used to soften plastics, were banned from children's toys after it was discovered that babies and toddlers were ingesting the chemical by sucking. But dibutyl phthalate (DBP) continued to be used in nail varnish until it was outlawed on January 1.
"Our main concern is the cocktail effect of exposure to dozens of chemicals on a daily basis," says Liz Sutton of the Women's Environmental Network, a charity that campaigns on women's health issues.
"Some of these chemicals have the potential to disrupt hormones and affect reproductive health, or to make us more susceptible to cancer or health problems later in life."
A US study published six months ago by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit consumer research organisation, claimed that daily use of some products, many of which are on sale in the UK, can result in a "chemical overload" that can trigger allergies or even disease.
A range of 7,500 products was analysed in the Skin Deep report. Each was rated on a scale of one to 10, the higher numbers representing the more chemical-laden, and hence riskier, items, which were deemed to have greater potential to cause allergic reactions, hormonal problems and an increased cancer risk. According to the report, the average adult uses nine cosmetics or toiletries a day, containing an average of 126 chemicals.
In the UK, the cosmetics industry is governed by the Department for Trade and Industry's 1996 Cosmetic Products (Safety) Regulations. Ingredients must be stated on the packaging, although the term "parfum" alone can cover up to 200 chemical constituents. But, according to Chris Flower, director-general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, consumer safety is of paramount importance.
"I'm disappointed that so many people in certain groups wish to scare the public quite needlessly," says Flower.
"Unfortunately, some people don't seem to be aware of the very real difference between the worst that a product can do and the chance that a minute quantity used in a product will cause an adverse effect.
"Take something like acetic acid: in its concentrated form it is highly corrosive and will eat through skin very quickly. Yet we're happy to sprinkle it on our fish and chips as vinegar, when it's been diluted.
"Generally, for cosmetic ingredients, a safety margin of 100 is the norm. That is, you could use 100 times as much of your cosmetics as you are currently using without risk of harm."
The hidden dangers on your bathroom shelf
Phalates: a family of chemicals, often used to soften plastics, these were banned from children's toys after it was discovered that babies and toddlers were ingesting the chemical by sucking. But dibutyl phthalate (DBP) continued to be used in nail varnish until it was outlawed on January 1, 2005.
Parabens: found in almost all moisturisers, they can cause irritation and allergic reactions. A study by Reading University and Edinburgh Breast Unit Research Group found higher than average levels of parabens in breast tumour tissue. But the European Commission's independent Scientific Committee on Consumer Products recently concluded there was no evidence of demonstrable risk.
Nitrosamines: compounds that form when diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), which are used as wetting agents in facial cleansers, body washes and shampoos, combine with nitrites, which are often present as contaminants. They have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals when taken orally.
Formaldehyde: a cheap preservative used in shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and children's bubble bath. Banned in Sweden and until recently in Japan - although Western exports are now accepted. Formaldehyde is a cancer suspect and an irritant that can trigger allergies.
Arylamines: present in permanent hair dyes. Some researchers believe that arylamines are partly responsible for the increased incidence of bladder cancer among women who use dyes regularly. Using dyes at least once a month can double the risk.
For further information see: Women's Environmental Network, Environmental Working Group, and Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association.
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