Perfumes and fragrances are the single largest category of cosmetic and personal care products, especially hair, facial, and eye. These products represent nearly 50 percent of all prestige beauty dollars now spent in the US Fragrances are also extensively used in a wide range of everyday household cleaning products.
Exposure to toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products is predominantly through the skin. In contrast, exposure to toxic ingredients in household cleaning products is predominantly through inhalation.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has direct authority under the terms of the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act to regulate toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products. However, seven decades later, it has still failed to do so. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency has also still failed to regulate these toxic ingredients in household cleaning products.
In the disturbing absence of any federal regulations, the policies and practices of the cosmetics and personal care products industries are determined by its International Fragrance Association (IFRA). This is an international trade organization of over 100 perfume and fragrance manufacturers, representing 15 regions including the US, Europe, South America, Australia and the Far East.
The primary objectives of IFRA are to protect the self-regulatory practices and policies of the industry by the development of a Code of Practices and safety guidelines. However, these include maintaining the "trade secret" status of perfume and fragrance ingredients, and pre-empting international legislative labeling and safety initiatives.
Of the more than 5,000 ingredients used in the fragrance industry, approximately 1,300 have so far been evaluated by the industry's International Research Institute for Fragrance Materials. This Institute is a "non-profit" organization, created by IFRA in 1966 to conduct research and testing of fragrance ingredients. However, this testing is minimal and restricted to local effects on human skin, and short-term toxicity tests in rodents. Evaluation of ingredient safety is then made by an "independent" board of toxicologists, pharmacologists and dermatologists, without disclosure of their qualifications, let alone conflicts of interest. Their findings are presented to IFRA's Scientific Advisory Board, and then published in its trade journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology. The information reported in this journal is the basis on which IFRA formulates its own "safety guidelines." However, due to the "trade secret" status of fragrances, manufacturers are still not required by the FDA to disclose their ingredients on the label or in any other way.
These ingredients include a wide range of allergens. They also include synthetic musks, particularly tonalide and galaxolide, designed to mimic natural scents derived from musk deer and ox. They are persistent and bioaccumulate in the body, have toxic hormonal effects, and have been identified in breast milk.
In efforts at damage control, IFRA agreed that information on allergenic ingredients in perfumes like Eternity should be made available, but only on request from dermatologists, for diagnostic purposes. This "Fragrance On-Call List" action denies the public its right to know.
In 1973, in further efforts at damage control, IFRA created a Code of Practice listing prohibited ingredients, based on its own safety analyses. This listing has been subsequently periodically updated.
In May 1999, in response to repeated complaints of respiratory, neurological, and other toxic effects following the use of Calvin Klein's Eternity perfume, the Environmental Health Network of California hired two testing laboratories to identify the ingredients in the perfume. Analysis of these results by the Cancer Prevention Coalition, summarized in the author's 2009 Toxic Beauty book, reveal the following:
• 26 ingredients whose "Toxicological properties have not been investigated," or "toxicology properties have not been thoroughly investigated."
• 25 ingredients that are "Irritants."
• 5 ingredients that are "Skin sensitizers," or allergens.
• 3 ingredients that show "Fetal, hormonal, and reproductive toxicity."
• 2 ingredients that "May cause cancer."
More disturbingly, Dr. Vey, president of IFRA, failed to respond to repeated warnings from August to October 2003 from the Cancer Prevention Coalition. These urged "all fragrance products be labeled to the effect that, apart from the absence of known skin and respiratory allergens, they contain no known carcinogens, gene damaging, hormonal, or otherwise toxic ingredients."
As reported in "What's That Smell," a June 2010 report by Women's Voices of the Earth, faced with continuing criticism of unresponsiveness, IFRA initiated a "compliance program" in 2007. However, this is based on testing of a mere 50 fragranced products from the global market place to detect prohibited ingredients.
Clearly, IFRA is recklessly irresponsible. Also, clearly the public should be protected from further exposure to toxic ingredients in cleaning products, besides those in cosmetics and personal care products. These objectives would be implemented by passage of Senator Frank Lautenberg's Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, and Congressmen Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush's companion Act of April 2010. Both these Acts were based on the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The new Acts require manufacturers to provide information on "chemicals of concern" in consumer products. This would also provide the public with information on the dangers of cosmetic and personal care products, especially as the FDA has recklessly failed to do so since passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
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Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; Recipient of the 1998 Right Livelihood Award ("Alternative Nobel Prize") and the 2005 Albert Schweitzer Golden Grand Medal for International Contributions to Cancer Prevention; Author of over 270 scientific articles and 20 books on the causes and prevention of cancer, including Toxic Beauty (BenBella Books, 2009) and Cancer-Gate: How To Win The Losing Cancer War (Baywood Publishing, 2005).
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
Author of the 2009 Toxic Beauty, and the 2005 Cancer-Gate books
Professor emeritus Environmental & Occupational Medicine
University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health
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