For as long as there have been cosmetics, they've been part of the holidays. They're popular Christmas gifts and part of looking good at big New Year's Eve parties, yet if you believe the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, personal care products - from skin creams to popular fragrances to baby shampoo - contain a "minefield of toxins." But the campaign's claims amount to a minefield of misinformation that could have far more dangerous repercussions than any of the chemicals it demonizes. Its latest target is Johnson & Johnson's "No More Tears" baby shampoo, used to help children look their best in countless holiday photos.
"This is the story of a world obsessed with stuff. It's the story of a system in crisis. We're trashing the planet, we're trashing each other, and we're not even having fun."
So begins the shock video produced by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of enviro-activists on a crusade to terrify consumers away from using personal care products that contain any trace of un-"natural" ingredients.
Our bathroom is loaded with toxins "that seep into our lives every day," the campaign tells us. We are polluting our bodies with products containing chemicals that cause cancer, learning disabilities, asthma and sperm damage, it says.
The activists - who will not rest until all man-made chemicals have been regulated out of existence - target women, particularly mothers of young children, who they claim are unknowingly "poisoning" their babies by using soaps and baby shampoos loaded with chemicals. "Babies across America are sitting in bubbles tainted with cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins linked to serious health effects," they wrote a few years ago.
Not surprisingly, their fear-mongering may have a big impact on consumer behavior. Increasingly, women are afraid to buy skin care products they have used for years, turning instead to products we know much less about because they promise - even though most of those promises are broken - natural, organic and chemical-free ingredients. Not only are they doing the public a grave disservice by inciting panic over preservatives, they are subjecting consumers to serious health risks.
Most recently, the campaign has directed a witch-hunt attack at Johnson & Johnson for using a "known human carcinogen" in its baby shampoo. At issue is a widely used formaldehyde-releasing preservative called quaternium-15, which is used in trace amounts to prevent contamination.
Water-based personal care products such as shampoos, skin creams and makeups, stored in warm and humid bathrooms, are breeding grounds for mold, fungi and even deadly bacteria. Preservatives are essential to prevent microorganisms from growing in our skin care products. Formaldehyde-releasers are particularly effective in fighting dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa that can cause serious and even deadly infections.
Only small concentrations of preservatives are needed to keep products safe from contamination. Quaternium-15 typically releases 100 to 200 parts per million of formaldehyde. To put that in perspective, many foods we ingest contain natural formaldehyde. Shiitake mushrooms, for example, contain up to 400 parts per million.
Yet activists with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, accusing Johnson & Johnson of using a "cancer-causing chemical" in its baby shampoo, have demanded that Johnson & Johnson remove the preservative.
The campaign is being dishonest with the American people and abusing consumer trust. It is fully aware the debate over formaldehyde as a carcinogen does not pertain to traces of formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in cosmetics. Rather it refers to risks associated with long-term exposure in industrial settings among workers who breathe in formaldehyde vapors day in and day out.
Fortunately, these risks can be managed through worker-safety measures. In fact, stringent Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards ensure that worker exposures pose little health concern.
But most relevant to cosmetics, the European Commission's scientific committee on cosmetics - one of the world's most stringent regulators of chemicals - has found that formaldehyde-releasing ingredients such as quaternium-15 are safe in shampoos and other personal care products as long as they do not exceed 2,000 parts per million. The campaign's own lab tests found shampoos containing formaldehyde at levels ranging from 54 to 610 parts per million - including Johnson's baby shampoo at 200 parts per million. These are well within the range of safety.
No matter. Johnson & Johnson broke under pressure and assured the campaign that it would remove the preservative. The winners are the campaign extremists who have successfully bullied the makers of "No More Tears" into submission. The losers are American consumers, who will be paying a lot more for a product whose ingredients we know a lot less about.
Dana Joel Gattuso is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research. She is author of "True Story of Cosmetics: Exposing the Risks of the Smear Campaign" (Competitive Enterprise Institute, 2011).
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