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In Your Face

How Cosmetics Companies Conceal the Truth

Cosmetics companies are forging ahead into a futuristic world with claims that nanoparticles deliver refreshing vitamins to your skin and stem cells repair damaged cells. Sales are booming, but the lack of regulation and transparency on ingredients mean that you could be spreading poison on your face.

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Nina Royal, who is a massage therapist and mother of two in Sarasota, Fla., considers herself to be a news-conscious, health-savvy consumer. But she’s still baffled when she buys cosmetics.

“How can I know if the chemical ingredients listed on the label are safe or if the product is as effective, organic or anti-aging as the packaging claims?” she asks. “There are so many new cosmetics constantly launching with few facts accompanying them to help people make an informed decision before buying.”

We couldn’t have said it better. The $35 billion worldwide cosmetics industry (everything from a $2 tube of lip gloss to a $200 jar of so-called cellular repair serum) always has operated on novelty, glamour and the promise of beauty. These days, however, the shelves are growing even more crowded and confusing than ever before.

Market-research firm Mintel International Group documented more than 370,000 new beauty products between 2003 and 2008. New brands constantly hit the shelves, and these new names, which held a 3 percent market share just 5 years ago, now rake in 30 percent of total sales, according to NPD Group, which is another market-research firm. Meanwhile, most manufacturers reformulate the ingredients that are in 25 percent of their products every year, according to European Commission. That means that not only are there dozens of new lipsticks from which to choose, but the formulations of the brands that you bought for years constantly change under your nose.

In this endlessly shifting sea, you’d expect to find some confirmation that these products are safe for you to put on your skin. You’d be wrong.

Although Food and Drug Administration has overseen the U.S. cosmetics industry since 1938, it lacks the power to approve products or ingredients before they hit store shelves. FDA simply calls for manufacturers to self-regulate, which they do through Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR)—a group that is funded and staffed by the industry to review the safety of ingredients and products.

In 30 years, CIR has reviewed the safety of only 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients that are in cosmetics, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), which is an organization that specializes in toxic-chemical research and safety. That leaves roughly 9,350 ingredients that never have been evaluated by any safety institution.

That’s a big problem when you consider that the average U.S. consumer uses 10 cosmetic products that have a total of 126 different ingredients each day, according to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), which is a nonprofit coalition that is dedicated to eliminating dangerous chemicals from cosmetics through research and advocacy. Many of these ingredients are industrial chemicals, such as formaldehyde, lead, 1.4-dioxane and other phthalates, according to EWG.

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Of all of the governing bodies that are in the world, only European Commission has defined what’s toxic in cosmetics. In 2005, it banned carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins (CMRs). Thousands of these remain in U.S. products. European Commission has banned the use of more than 1,100 ingredients. FDA has banned 10.

Alas, buyer beware is the all-too-familiar refrain when you shop for cosmetics.

INNOVATION OR WEIRD SCIENCE? There’s been no shortage of cosmetics innovations in the past 4 years, and products that are aimed at reversing—or at least masking—the ravages of time are the primary driver. Anti-aging skin products garnered $1.6 billion in annual U.S. sales in 2008 (the latest year for which data are available), according to Mintel. That segment is expected to expand another 20 percent through 2013. On Amazon.com, for instance, we found in March 1,050 different anti-aging cosmetic products from which to choose.

The latest products jigger with the amino acid sequences that are inside stem cells under the promise that the amino acids contain regenerative properties that can help damaged (old) skin cells repair themselves. In other words, they purportedly take away wrinkles. Since 2006, dozens of these creams have appeared on the U.S. market.

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