Cosmetic Solutions: The Makeup Industry Gives Itself a Health Hazard Makeover

Breast cancer. Genital abnormalities. Distortion and damage of genetic material.

Common ingredients in cosmetic products have been linked to these hazards. As further research is conducted into the long-term and cumulative effects on cosmetics users, their children and the water supply that products are washed off into, more questions arise. Not that you'd know it by listening to the cosmetics industry.

From a Campaign for Safe Cosmetics <a href="" target="_blank">adAn important underlying issue is that the industry is largely self-regulated. While interstate trade in "adulterated or misbranded cosmetics" is prohibited, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review new cosmetics before they are marketed and cannot order recalls of hazardous cosmetics. "Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients," reads the FDA's own explanation.

The industry's trade group, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA), likes this hands-off approach. CTFA has 600 member companies, including Aveda, Clairol, L'Oréal and Unilever, and standing committees on government relations, public affairs and international issues. Its website says CTFA promotes "industry self-regulation and reasonable governmental requirements." But reasonable to who?

Health and environmental organizations are increasingly seeing the status quo as unreasonable and untenable. In 2002, the Breast Cancer Fund, Environmental Working Group, National Black Environmental Justice Network and others launched the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Its goal is the phase-out of cosmetics ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems. In May 2006, Friends of the Earth and the International Center for Technology Assessment petitioned the FDA to monitor products with nanoparticle ingredients, including more than 100 cosmetics and sunscreens. Due to their incredibly small size, nanoparticles can enter tissues and cells and cause biochemical damage.

CTFA seems nervous. In its 2005 annual report, CTFA chair Marc Pritchard warned, "It is clear that our industry is at a crossroads in the areas of safety, self-regulation and global harmonization, and will require further action on our parts to lead to positive changes." He added that "activist groups" are "attacking us on several fronts and taking their messages to consumers."

But CTFA has some potent tricks up its sleeve. In December 2005, The Hill reported that CTFA was on a "hiring spree," bringing aboard several new lobbying and public relations staffers, including Representative Mike Oxley's (R-Ohio) son, Elvis, and Kathleen Dezio from the American Beverage Association. In May 2006, CTFA added a new vice-president of communications, Lisa Powers. Powers told PR Watch that her "primary objective is to strengthen the message about product safety."

On June 1, 2006, CTFA shmoozed members of Congress with its "Fragrance Day" on Capitol Hill. The event opened with "a VIP reception, by invitation only, for Congressional Members including members from the Committee on Energy and Commerce," followed by an "open house for members and staffers," according to a CTFA press release.

Whether CTFA will be able to neutralize the mounting health concerns and regulatory pressures faced by the cosmetics industry depends largely on whether such lobbying and PR efforts go unchallenged.

Chemical Terrorists Are after Your Mascara

Lexi Shultz estimates that she uses 20 or more cosmetic products -- including soap, shampoo and lotion -- on a daily basis, even though she has "personal concerns about how safe they might be." So, when she saw an email about a Washington DC focus group on cosmetics, she applied to take part in it.

Frank Luntz
Frank Luntz

The January 2006 focus group was conducted by Luntz Research, the polling and political consulting firm founded by Frank Luntz. Luntz is probably best known for his polling to develop the 1994 Republican "Contract with America," his work to reframe the estate tax as the "death tax," and his use of so-called "dial technology" in focus groups. The idea behind the dials, as Luntz explained to PBS, is that they allow focus group members to immediately and anonymously respond to "every single word, every single phrase."

In the cosmetics focus group, Shultz and 27 others were shown a series of video clips, and asked to turn their dials to the right if they felt positively about what was shown and to the left if they felt negatively. The first clip featured Environmental Working Group representatives raising concerns about the use of chemicals called phthalates in cosmetics. Some phthalates have been linked to reproductive abnormalities in animals. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' first report, "Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products and the FDA," found that 52 of the 72 cosmetics, deodorants and perfumes tested contained phthalates.

Every other video shown during the focus group was from the cosmetics industry's point of view. In one, an unidentified person claimed that "chemical terrorist groups are trying to frighten you" by claiming that cosmetics are not safe. Other negative terms applied to health and environmental organizations were "opposition groups" and "questionable groups." The phrase "junk science," often employed to muddy policy debates, was used repeatedly.

"The industry messages were in attack mode," Shultz told PR Watch, but it didn't play well. "The stronger the language in a video clip, the more negative the reaction from the focus group." Another major theme, choice, also backfired. In response to an argument that adults should be allowed to make their own decisions about cosmetic products, as they do about alcohol and tobacco, participants asked, "Didn't the tobacco industry lie to us for years?"

What appealed to the focus group were independent experts, government agencies and review processes overseeing and ensuring the safety of cosmetic products. One video featuring a woman epidemiologist received especially high ratings. Participants also expressed interest in doing their own research. This was explored throughout the session, with the moderator asking where participants would do their research and who they would believe. At one point, participants were asked to fill out worksheets describing a website with information on cosmetics ingredients, to be launched in 2007.

The client paying Luntz Research to conduct the focus group was not identified, but CTFA's Lisa Powers confirmed that the association had commissioned focus groups, "to find out what the issues are that are out there and how well known CTFA was." She couldn't comment further on the subject, she said, as the focus groups were held before she joined CTFA.

Mirroring Activist Campaigns

Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association meetingThe parallels between what was discussed during the cosmetics focus group and CTFA's new "consumer-oriented industry initiatives," announced at the association's annual meeting in March 2006, are striking. The initiatives include "a consumer beauty information web site," described by CTFA as "the definitive place to go for consumers seeking information about the science behind cosmetic products and ingredients." Also on the list is "a new consumer commitment code," to "reaffirm the industry's commitment to safe products."

As described in a May 2006 letter to CTFA members, the "Consumer Information Website ... will use the latest technology to provide consumers with safety information about cosmetic products and ingredients, as well as educational information on how the industry conducts its safety reviews and testing." Powers described the website as "a critical piece" of CTFA's work. She said that CTFA is currently "collecting significant data" for the website, which is expected to go public in early 2007.

With regard to CTFA's new "Consumer Commitment Code," the association is giving "all CTFA member companies" a deadline of January 1, 2007, to "certify compliance," according to the May letter. "Companies that are compliant with the code will receive special recognition on the CTFA website and can promote this to customers and vendors," it adds.

The code directs companies only to use ingredients and market products that have sufficient safety information, to report "serious or unexpected" adverse reactions to the FDA, and to make ingredient and product safety data available to the FDA. Given that these are very minor changes to the current system, it's fair to ask whether the code's real goal -- or, at least, its effective outcome -- might be to promote cosmetic products and companies as compliant, under a system defined by and for the industry itself.

After all, independent standards have a way of threatening the status quo. Europe is a case in point. Since September 2004, the European Union has banned more than 1,200 substances from cosmetic products, including some phthalates and other chemicals still allowed in U.S. cosmetics. By the end of 2006, the European Union is expected to enact more comprehensive legislation requiring chemical producers and users to provide basic data on potential health and environmental hazards before products can be sold. (Not surprisingly, the Bush administration worked with the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups in an attempt to derail the pending European legislation, which they characterized as too "costly, burdensome, and complex.")

While CTFA, like other trade associations, promotes "industry self-regulation," that regulation must be perceived as rigorous enough to avoid significant criticism or government action. That's where CTFA's industry initiatives come in. Ironically, its initiatives mirror those of the activist Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "What can we say -- imitation is the highest form of flattery," Stacy Malkan of Healthcare Without Harm commented dryly.

As CTFA builds its own informational website, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has "Skin Deep." Launched in 2005 and hosted by the Environmental Working Group, Skin Deep draws on 37 government, academic, nonprofit and professional reports and databases. The interactive site matches toxicity information and regulatory status on more than 7,000 ingredients with nearly 15,000 cosmetic and personal care products. Website visitors can determine the "safety score" of the products they currently use, browse by product type or brand name, or find the lowest-risk products that meet their needs.

As CTFA holds seminars to explain its new code to member companies, the list of signatories to the "Compact for the Global Production of Safe Health and Beauty Products" is growing. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics drafted the Compact in 2004, based on European standards. Companies that sign the Compact agree to inventory the chemicals they use, replace chemicals banned by the European Union with safer alternatives within three years, and publicly report on their progress. As of March 2006, more than 300 cosmetics companies -- mostly smaller ones -- had signed on. "Despite repeated requests, multinational companies such as L'Oréal, Revlon, Estée Lauder, Gap, Avon, OPI and Procter & Gamble have refused to sign the Compact," notes a Campaign for Safe Cosmetics press release.

Lipstick on a Pig

While CTFA may seem to be on the defensive, one advantage the association has is its past experience fighting -- and at least partially winning -- similar battles.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the cosmetics industry came under intense scrutiny for its animal testing practices. Many people were disturbed by the outmoded and often extreme methods used, such as putting massive amounts of cosmetics into animals' eyes or stomachs. By 1991, ten states were considering legislation to limit the use of animals in cosmetics testing.

Minutes from an April 1987 meeting of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA, now called the American Chemistry Council) read: "The committee discussed the various animal rights bills pending that would restrict the use of animals for health effects testing. It agreed to gather more information on policies and positions that other trade and professional groups have adopted. The Health and Safety Committee recommended that CMA allow the Cosmetic, Toiletries and Fragrance Association [sic] to take the lead advocacy role on this issue."

In 1989, CTFA asked its member companies to help it raise $1 million to combat -- in the words of then-CTFA president Ed Kavanaugh -- "a very negative and ... very dangerous campaign that is being conducted in the name of animal rights." According to Women's Wear Daily, CTFA retained the services of E. Bruce Harrison, who is often considered the pioneer of "environmental public relations," or greenwashing. (When asked by PR Watch, CTFA's Lisa Powers said the association is currently working with multiple outside PR firms, but declined to name them.)

According to its website, CTFA's early efforts to defuse the animal testing controversy included establishing a task force to "explore alternative testing procedures"; sponsoring a symposium on animal testing, to foster "an open exchange of opinions and ideas" between the industry and animal rights activists; and awarding grants to the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, to develop alternatives to animal testing. Later efforts, including lobbying and newspaper op/ed campaigns, were focused on the states considering animal testing bills.

After the California legislature passed an animal test ban in 1990, CTFA pulled out all the stops. Working with former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop -- who was at the time also helping PR firms defend pesticides and recombinant bovine growth hormone -- CTFA won a gubernatorial veto of the California bill, twice.

Kathy Guillermo had a front row seat for much of this heated debate. She was the director of the Caring Consumer Campaign of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) from 1989 through 1993. She told PR Watch that several aspects of CTFA's response to animal testing concerns were misleading.

"The industry adapted the tests so that, for example, fewer rabbits were used in the eye irritation tests and a smaller percentage were poisoned to death in the lethal dose tests," explained Guillermo. "They were merely variations on the same tests, but the CTFA, by using a narrow definition, claimed that most companies no longer used the Draize [eye irritation] and [lethal dose] tests. They knew this would be taken to mean that companies weren't putting chemicals in animals' eyes and force-feeding chemicals, when they were still doing this." She also questions the impact of CTFA's grants to Johns Hopkins, saying that the university's Center for Alternatives to Animal Tests "has been little more than an apologist for the animal testing industry -- not a single in vitro (non-animal) test now in use has emerged from the center."

Not surprisingly, CTFA tried to discredit PETA, claiming that the group "was interested only in publicity and donations," said Guillermo. She told PR Watch that she even received phone calls from "people identifying themselves only as private investigators hired by the cosmetics industry. They seemed rather obvious in their attempts to gather some sort of 'inside PETA' information that might be used to damage our reputation -- questions like, 'What about your off-shore bank accounts?' and other nonsense."

But CTFA's negative rhetoric didn't stop there. The association "claimed that companies that had banned animal tests were 'dishonest' because they used ingredients that had been tested on animals in the past," according to Guillermo. "This was just silly. We were aware that most chemicals had been tested on animals. We applauded companies that chose to let this remain in the past rather than continue it."

Guillermo advises health and environmental groups now challenging the cosmetics industry "not to be intimidated by the CTFA, or any other industry group. The fact that it mounted a campaign against PETA and our work was evidence that they were running scared. ... For PETA it was more effective to go directly to the consumer and not spend huge amounts of time on worry about what the CTFA was saying."

Compared to CTFA's past efforts to defuse animals rights activism, the association is now doing more to "go directly to the consumer" with its own messages downplaying health dangers and confusing the oversight issue. But the current concerns may hit closer to home for many. "Infants imbibing breast milk may also be sucking down a high dose of phthalates," reported Environmental Science & Technology in July 2006.

Advocating that cosmetics companies reformulate their products to exclude ingredients known or strongly linked to health problems is not "chemical terrorism" or "junk science." It's common sense, no matter how hard CTFA claims otherwise.