Pretty ugly

Obama administration makes cosmetics industry squirm

Chemical-free products, such as these, give women a healthy alternative.

Chemical-free products, such as these, give women a healthy alternative.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Welcome to Green Town, a new column by Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess, which will rotate every other week with Green House, her bi-monthly musings on SN&R’s green building project.

I bet you’d like to hear something hilarious, wouldn’t you?

Well then, here goes: The cosmetics industry is freaked out by President Barack Obama and his administration, convinced his presidency will result in an increased regulatory climate, which is the last thing manufacturers of products formulated with ingredients largely untested for safety want to happen.

I know. Funny, right? Oh, how I like to see powerful, money-hungry corporations squirm, especially when this $250 billion global industry relies on reinforcing the body insecurities of women and teenage girls to be profitable.

You might call it a self-fulfilling prophecy that I’ve convinced myself that the abundance of toxic chemicals in our daily lives contributes to the fact that chronic illness and disease afflicts almost half of the American population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Or you might call the connection between the increased use of synthetic chemicals post-World War II and correlating rise in breast-cancer rates in industrial societies merely a convenient theory with, you know, plenty of supporting evidence.

Either way, yeah, I like to see the cosmetics industry squirm. And so does the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Last month, this coalition of health, environmental and women’s groups released “A Little Prettier” report in follow-up to its 2002 “Not Too Pretty” report. The original report revealed that 72 percent of popular cosmetic products tested contained phthalates.

Phthalates are a set of industrial chemicals linked to genital changes in baby boys, reduced sperm count in men and early puberty in girls. Manufacturers rarely list phthalates on product ingredient labels. Legally, most cosmetics sold in this country may contain unlimited amounts of phthalates.

The new findings, however, indicate that leading beauty products contain fewer phthalates than they once did. The coalition retested the worst offenders from six years prior; none of the products—perfumes, deodorants and hair sprays—contained more than one phthalate.

“Rather than admit they are using these chemicals, the companies seem to be taking them out,” said Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. The California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 requires companies to notify the state if they are using certain phthalates.

The industry’s response: Manufacturers are simply enacting routine changes to their products. No big deal, they say. But I wouldn’t be too sure.

The Personal Care Products Council—the industry’s trade association—has felt heavy pressure from coalition groups, consumers and regulatory action in recent years.

Women have pushed for healthier alternatives. Here, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Whole Foods Market and a handful of grocery-store chains carry natural beauty products. The Spice of Life, recently opened on 28th and T streets, is selling lavender, vitamin E, chamomile and more for those who prefer to concoct homemade fragrances and lotions free of toxic chemicals.

On the regulatory end, in 2003, the European Union banned two phthalates and more than 1,000 other toxic chemicals from personal-care products. In 2007, the state of Washington banned phthalates from children’s products, including personal-care products for kids. In 2008, the U.S. Congress banned several types of phthalates from children’s toys.

Now, the industry’s worried the Obama administration and Democratic Congress might overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate certain chemicals. The law currently excludes the cosmetics industry. Cosmetics are regulated under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, although “regulated” is a funny way to refer to a loose oversight process, in which products aren’t even subject to pre-market approval.

Industry articles circulating on the Internet also show companies concerned about California Rep. Henry Waxman, the new chairman of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the regulation of the cosmetics industry. Waxman is known as a friend of the environmental movement and public-health issues. Hopefully that turns out to be true.

And so as we watch the cosmetics industry squirm uncomfortably, let’s chuckle.