“Raise your hand if you’re SURE!” a deodorant ad once proclaimed, playing to widespread insecurities about appearance and body odor. The promise of radiant confidence and magnetic appeal is what sells personal care products, generating U.S. manufacturers upwards of $60 billion a year.

Look past the advertising ditties, as director Jon Whelan does in his unsettling documentary “Stink!”, and you may feel markedly less sure.

Each day, the typical American woman slathers on a dozen lotions, creams, gels and cosmetics – exposing her body to an estimated 168 unique chemical ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group. Men tend to use about half as many products with roughly half as many ingredients.

People assume these products are subject to governmental scrutiny, but what we routinely pour into our pores undergoes no systematic safety assessment. The personal care product industry is allowed to “self-regulate,” even though scientific research confirms that many of its product ingredients pose health risks.

Here are a couple facts more “clarifying” than any shampoo:

Manufacturers are legally permitted to keep fragrance ingredients a trade secret, and a single product’s fragrance may contain dozens of chemicals – including those known to harm human health.


Congress has not updated its cosmetics law since 1938.

Consumers cannot make informed choices when labels don’t reflect all product ingredients. As the law stands now, companies need not reveal what lurks beneath the umbrella term fragrance (or parfum) even if those chemicals are life-threatening.

“What type of proprietary information could be more important than the health of a child?” a distraught mother asks in “Stink!”, after her teenage son experiences anaphylaxis from exposure to the body spray Axe used by his peers at school.

Those who suffer from chemical sensitivities, asthma and allergies may be at highest risk, along with children, but the fragrances used in personal care products should concern everyone. These volatile or semi-volatile organic compounds vaporize readily and can persist in the air, provoking wheezing, migraines, seizures and longer-term concerns like cancer, reproductive disorders and learning disabilities.

Recognizing the threats posed by toxic chemicals, Congress recently updated the Toxic Substances Control Act (first written four decades ago) to impose stronger standards on chemicals used in consumer products. Yet another outdated law still permits the personal care products industry to function without careful oversight by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The European Union and Canada have banned upward of 1,300 chemical ingredients in personal care products due to evidence of health hazards, but with its limited powers the FDA has banned only 11 to date.

Senators Susan Collins and Dianne Feinstein are working to tame the Wild West of unregulated cosmetics with the bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would finally give the FDA power to complete thorough safety reviews and ban chemicals that fail to meet a strict standard for human health. Both senators deserve credit for leading this effort, which could be passed into law later this year.


Under the proposed act, the FDA would require manufacturers to register their facilities and products and to maintain safety records. Companies would need to report problematic health effects to the FDA, and the agency could “recall a cosmetic that is likely to cause serious adverse health consequences,” according to the bill summary.

Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, is heartened by the “real prospect for federal reform of cosmetics safety in the near future” and believes this bill will provide significant improvements.

There are still a few provisions, though, that he and other consumer advocates hope to see addressed. The bill as written does not require full disclosure of chemicals on product labels – including all those masquerading as fragrance.

And the proposed act calls for the FDA to review “at least five cosmetic ingredients” each year. At that pace, the agency might compile a list as protective as the ones the European Union and Canada have right now – in 250 years!

Why not rely on their scientific research and start by restricting the 1,300-plus chemicals already known to be hazardous? Presumably, having consistent standards across international borders would be helpful for manufacturers as well as safer for consumers.

Now is a good time for concerned citizens to “raise their hands” and speak out for the safety they deserve in personal care products. Only major regulatory reform will provide us with true assurance.

Marina Schauffler is a freelance writer and editor whose work is online at www.naturalchoices.com.

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