Finding the fine print

Wake up. Shower. Put on make-up. Most women follow this simple routine, but, according to a new study, it may not be safe. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows cosmetics may be the reason for unusually high levels of toxins found in young women, levels exceeding the government’s safe levels set to protect against birth defects.

One common toxin found in cosmetics is called dibutyl phthalate, or DBP. While it has only been proven to cause harm in lab rats and not humans, testing has been limited. The Environmental Working Group, located in D.C., took these findings and went shopping.

“Most people assume what they are buying from the drug store and grocery shelves are safe,” said Jane Hulihan, vice president of research for the group. “This assumption is not correct. The Food and Drug Administration is in charge of regulating food safety and is also in charge of regulating cosmetic safety.

“But there is a giant loophole: There is no regulation for safety testing,” Hulihan said.

It took more than 60 years after phthalates were first marketed for the federal government’s National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences to initiate a study on the effects of phthalates.

In September 2000, CDC reported that “from a public health perspective, these data provide evidence that phthalate exposure is both higher and more common than previously suspected.” In CDC’s study, DBP was found at significantly higher levels in women. CDC theorizes extreme exposure may arise from the use of cosmetics and beauty products.

Cosmetic companies have been given free reign to use chemicals, some that are tolerable in low doses but can be harmful if overused. Phthalates are considered a hazardous waste and are regulated as pollutants in air and water. But they are largely unregulated in food and cosmetics.

People are exposed to phthalates daily through their contact with consumer products. The toxins can cause allergic reactions on the skin, and more importantly it can cause birth defects when used by young women, Hulihan said.

Some students say they are willing to take the risk.

After hearing about the toxin, sophomore Natasha Capellas said, “I don’t go anywhere without make-up.”

Others said they would be a little more cautious.

Elizabeth Douglas, a first-year graduate student, said, “I would be more compelled to check labels.”

DBP is found in many products, such as paints, adhesives and industrial solvents. It is even used to soften plastic in some products. The Environmental Working Group found DBP was used broadly among cosmetic products, making women a more susceptible target.

DBP can also be found in ingredient in soap, fragrances and especially nail polish. Hulihan encourages women to read the labels of products before purchasing.

But Hulihan also said it is virtually impossible to find out whether the amount of DBP in the product exceeds a safe limit. Also, not all products contain labels. The ingredients of most perfumes are known as trade secrets and are not listed.

Dibutyl phthalate is the same as butyl ester and even plasticizer, which Hulihan said is easy to find in nail polish. When nail polish dries, a thin film is left behind as a coating for the nail, which reduces cracking. DBP is found in this film. The Environmental Working Group cited Cover Girl and Maybelline as two popular brands that use this toxin, but shelves at a local CVS prove that many generic brands use it as well.

The Environmental Working Group reports that no one knows for sure what causes high level of toxins found in the women, but cosmetics are a highly possible source. There is no concrete evidence of the effects of DBP on humans, only lab rats. What is certain is that the people who would be affected most, if the chemical is dangerous, are pregnant women and people with extreme exposure, such as women who work at nail salons.

“We are swimming in a pool of chemicals every day. It is our choice to reduce the personal burden of chemicals in the body,” Hulihan said.

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