Harmful Chemicals in Personal Care?


NEWTON, Mass.—This week, the Silent Spring Institute released a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, which found everyday products contain a wide range of potentially harmful chemicals, including many that are not listed on product labels (March 8, 2012). Researchers analytically quantified endocrine disruptors and asthma-related chemicals in a range of cosmetics, personal care products, cleaners, sunscreens and vinyl products; and they evaluated whether labels can be used to select products without these chemicals.

A total of 213 commercial products representing 50 product types were selected. Forty-two composited samples of high market-share products were tested, as well as 43 alternative products identified using criteria expected to minimize target compounds. Analytes included parabens, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), triclosan, ethanolamines, alkylphenols, fragrances, glycol ethers, cyclosiloxanes and UV filters.

Researchers detected 55 compounds, indicating a wide range of exposures from common products. Vinyl products contained more than 10 percent DEHP and could be an important source of DEHP in homes. In other products, the highest concentrations and numbers of detects were in the fragranced products perfume, air fresheners and dryer sheets, and in sunscreens. Some products that did not contain the well-known EDC phthalates contained other less-studied phthalates (also EDCs), suggesting a substitution. Many detected chemicals were not listed on labels.

The study concluded: “Common products contain complex mixtures of EDCs and asthma-related compounds. Toxicological studies of these mixtures are needed to understand their biological activity. For epidemiology, findings raise cautions about potential confounding from co-occurring chemicals and misclassification due to variability in product composition. It appears that consumers can avoid some target chemicals—synthetic fragrances, BPA and regulated active ingredients—using purchasing criteria. More complete labeling would enable consumers to avoid the rest."

However, despite the institutes’ findings, not everyone agrees. The Personal Care Product Council (PCPC) said this only serves to once again “demonstrate the group's lack of understanding of safety science."

"The results of this study are not new or surprising and should not alarm consumers," said Linda Loretz, Ph.D., senior scientist and director of safety and regulatory toxicology for the Council. “The mere presence of those chemicals identified does not mean they are harmful. Cosmetics and personal care products companies formulate their products to ensure the amounts of ingredients used are within safety limits that have been established by scientific and regulatory bodies around the world."

The Council pointed out several key flaws in the methodology, including:

  1. No criteria for the list of chemicals identified as "endocrine disruptors" or "asthma-associated" is provided in the study;
    The PCPC noted: “Chemicals with endocrine activity are abundant in nature, and present in much of the food we eat such as soy, cabbage, cereals, pomegranates and coffee. The study's findings that allege ‘endocrine disruption’ are not based on relevant science and ignore the fact that these ingredients are used at levels found to be safe by scientific and regulatory bodies around the world. [Furthermore], the authors do not define what is meant by ‘chemicals linked to asthma’ and ‘asthma-associated chemicals.’ Instead, the study includes compounds that are reported to have effects in occupational settings, which have no relevance to the significantly lower exposures in cosmetics and personal care products."
  2. products were inappropriately tested together in batches, so no conclusions can be drawn about the results for any specific product; and
  3. the analysis also provides no consideration for the potency, dose or exposure levels of the ingredients.

The Council also noted: “Sunscreens were cited as endocrine disruptors based on the results of screening assays with no proven relevance for humans. High levels in products are cited, without acknowledgment that these are the FDA-approved, normal levels for use in sun protection products. Despite the body of scientific evidence and the determination by regulatory authorities and professional medical societies that sunscreens play a critical role in protecting consumers from UV radiation and premature aging, the authors still assert that sunscreens are harmful to humans."

Separately, FDA sent out a press release on March 8 cautioning consumers to be leary of personal care products that could potentially contain mercury, notably skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps or lotions. The agency said the products are marketed as skin lighteners and anti-aging treatments, and manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the United States. "Even though these products are promoted as cosmetics, they also may be unapproved new drugs under the law,” said Linda Katz, M.D., director of FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. FDA does not allow mercury in drugs or in cosmetics, except under very specific conditions, which these products do not meet.