Not Too Pretty:
the High Price of Beauty  
UPdate Fall 2002

"Chemicals that can damage the development and future fertility of babies don't belong in products marketed to women," said Bryony Schwan, one of the authors of Not Too Pretty, a report documenting the presence of phthalates in a wide range of cosmetics, fragrances, and personal care products. Phthalates, (pronounced tha-lates), are a family of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects in the male reproductive system.  They are also suspected of affecting liver, kidneys, lungs and blood clotting.

Not Too Pretty was released by three US environmental and public health organizations in July, as a US government panel was deciding whether to reevaluate these chemicals.  The groups, Coming Clean, the Environmental Working Group, and Health Care Without Harm, contracted with a major laboratory to test 72 name brand, off the shelf beauty products for the presence of phthalates. It is the first North American study of this type.

Two years ago, researchers at the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) tested a sample of 289 people to determine whether they had absorbed phthalates in their bodies. Every person tested had one of the most common phthalates, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in their body. DEP (diethyl phthalate) and BBzP (butylbenzyl phthalate) were also found at high levels, as well as four other phthalates. "From a public health perspective, these data provide evidence that phthalate exposure is both higher and more common than previously suspected," the CDC scientists wrote. They were even more shocked to find that women from 20 to 40 years old appeared to have the highest exposure. Scientists found that women in this group may have up to 20 times greater levels than the average person in the population.
"The most surprising thing was that the highest exposures (of DBP) are in women of childbearing age," said phthalate expert Paul M.D. Foster of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology."That's not where you want to have them, when dealing with compounds that cause birth defects."  Fetuses are exposed to DBP in the womb. Animal tests have shown that some phthalates damage the developing testes of offspring and cause malformations of the penis and other parts of the male reproductive system.  They also affect fertility.  

When the CDC scientists found such high levels of DBP in women's bodies, they speculated that cosmetics might be a source.  But they were not sure.  The products tested in the Not Too Pretty study included major brands like Revlon, Calvin Klein, Christian Dior and Proctor and Gamble. The lab found phthalates in 75% of the products tested, including Pantene Pro V "Healthy Hold" and Aqua Net hair sprays, Arrid and Degree deodorants, and fragrances including Poison by Christian Dior and Coty's Healing Garden Pure Joy Body Treatment. Nine of 14 deodorants tested, all 18 fragrances, six of seven hair gels, four of 7 mousses, 14 of 18 hair sprays, and two of four hand and body lotions all contained phthalates. Some contained only one, others contained several members of the phthalate family. Quantities varied from trace amounts of some substances to nearly 3% of the product's formulation.
Federal laws in the US and Canada allow the $20 billion cosmetic industry to include unlimited amounts of phthalates in personal care products. There is no required testing, no required monitoring of health effects, and no required labeling.  The exception is nail care products which must state on the label whether they include phthalates. In November 2000, shortly after the CDC study was released, the Environmental Working Group identified popular nail care products including polishes, top coats and hardeners that contained DBP.  These including L'Oreal, Maybelline, Oil of Olay and others from major manufacturers. Eight months later, Urban Decay, a California-based company whose DBP-containing nail polish was highlighted in EWG's study announced it had reformulated its entire line of nail polish to be DBP-free. They called on other cosmetics companies to "eliminate this dangerous chemical from their formulas." But a check of 24 nail polishes in 2002 found that 16 (67%) still contained DBP. In fact, Louis Vuitton which owns Urban Decay still includes phthalates in its Christian Dior nail polish and its fragrance, Poison.

The Not Too Pretty  study found that in most product categories, phthalate-free formulations are possible. Some companies sell the same type of product with and without phthalates. The exception is fragrances. All fragrances tested included phthalates.  Manufacturers use phthalates to make scents last longer.

Three phthalates, DBP, DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate) and BBzP are considered relatively potent reproductive toxins.  All three were found in products tested in the Not Too Pretty  study. More than 20 years ago, scientists began finding that phthalates can cause a wide range of birth defects and lifelong reproductive impairment in laboratory animals. They can damage the testes, prostate gland, epidiymus, penis and seminal vesicles, leading to reduced fertility among other effects. Health studies of human males show increases in many of these same problems including declining sperm count, undescended testicles and testicular cancer. To what extent phthalate exposure contributes to these problems in humans is not yet scientifically established, but is cause for concern.  Two phalates in the study are of particular concern because of the amounts found. DBP was found in only six of the 72 products, but it was found in substantial concentrations. DEP, was found in 51 of 72 products tested, and in one, Elizabeth Arden's Red Door fragrance it made up 3% of the product.  Although somewhat less potent a reproductive toxin than DBP, DEP has been associated with reproductive damage including reduced sperm counts.

The cosmetics industry, which is mostly self regulated, last published a safety assessment of phthalates seventeen years ago, concluding then that they "are safe for topical application in the present practices of use and concentrations in cosmetics."   Phthalates are also contained in a wide range of other products, including flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic products such as medical devices, shower curtains and childrens' toys,  pesticides, and building materials including lubricants and adhesives.  In January, 2002, a Health Canada expert panel called for
immediate action on medical devises containing the phthalate DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate). They recommended that health care providers not use DEHP containing devices in the treatment of pregnant women, breast feeding mothers, infants, males before puberty and patients undergoing cardiac bypass hemodialysis or heart transplant surgery.  Childrens' teethers and rattles and dog chew toys made of phthalate containing PVC were removed from shelves in 1998, after a Health Canada advisory.  In October 2000, the National Toxicology Program Center for the Evaluation of Risk to Human Reproduction's expert panel report expressed "serious
concern" that exposure to DEHP may adversely affect male reproductive tract
development in critically ill infants and "concern" over the levels of exposure of pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers and healthy infants and toddlers to DEHP.

Neither the FDA nor Health Canada has yet acted to regulate exposure to phthalates in cosmetics and fragrances, used daily by many of the same groups identified as "at risk" from phthalates in medical devices. A Health Canada spokesperson says Health Canada is monitoring the issue, but at the moment considers the risk of phthalates in cosmetics to be minimal.  The FDA-supported Cosmetics Ingredients Review (CIR) panel, the panel charged with determining the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics, decided in June 2002 to order a scientific review of phthalates in response to new concerns about the chemicals.  The last time the panel looked at phthalates was in 1985 and at that time ruled them safe as used.  Present government safety standards for phthalates in the US and Canada are set by assuming that no one is exposed to more than one phthalate at a time, and that people's bodies are completely free of phthalates. But these assumptions are wrong, as the CDC data, as well as the data from Not too Pretty show.  Dr. Ted Schettler of Health Care Without Harm warns that the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission "must begin to transform their make-believe regulatory framework into a new, science-based system that properly considers the reality of aggregate exposures to toxic chemicals."

Concern about the effect of multiple sources of exposure to phthalates is growing internationally. In July, the Swedish Chemical Inspectorate, acting on behalf of the European Union, reported that people "are exposed to DEHP during their entire
lifetime, via the environment, consumer products and medical equipment" and that there is a need to institute measures to reduce exposure now.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued a report on hormone disrupting chemicals, including phthalates as well as chemicals like dioxins, PCBs, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.  They note that while evidence from human studies is still weak, evidence in the animal world makes study into the impact of these chemicals on humans "a global high priority".  There is an urgent need for studies in vulnerable populations, especially in infants and children, since exposure during critical developmental periods may have irreversible effects, the report states.

The full Not Too Pretty report and additional information on phthalates is available at