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Cancer and cosmetics: What you should know about some of the chemicals in your beauty products

Amy Robertson is about as natural as a Canadian can be.

Without a trace of makeup, her blond hair usually cinched in a ponytail, the former organic farmer and health-food store clerk from Vancouver scrupulously avoids preservatives and pesticides in her food. She was also tested last year by researchers collecting proof of toxic chemicals in the body.

But what she discovered shocked her -- her clean-living body was distressingly polluted with heavy metals and PCBs. If the 43-year-old is disciplined about what goes into her mouth, she is anything but when it comes to what she puts on her skin. Inspecting her herbal shampoo label for the first time, she finds cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine and methyl cocoyl taurate, the stuff of chemistry labs.

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"I've always said to the kids, 'If you can't pronounce an ingredient, we won't buy it,' " Ms. Robertson says. "But I have obviously not been that good with cosmetics."

Few have. While Canadians have become savvy about chemicals in their food -- scanning package labels and paying premium prices for organic produce -- little mention has been made of the chemicals that clean our hair and moisturize our skin day in and day out.

Yet some of the 10,000 ingredients in beauty products are suspected or confirmed carcinogens, hormone-mimicking chemicals or substances linked to birth defects. And in an age of increasing fear over chemical exposures, the $5.3-billion cosmetics industry is poised to become the new frontier for health and eco-minded consumers.

Under new federal rules that came into force late last year, cosmetics companies selling products in Canada are compelled to list ingredients on their packages -- a move that has brought this country closer into line with Europe and the United States, where, for some, checking the label on a lipstick is as routine as reading a cereal box.

Some cosmetics ingredients will also go under the microscope when Ottawa begins a massive safety review of thousands of chemicals in widespread use that was announced last winter.

And later this month hearings will begin in Ontario on a private member's bill tabled by NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns that would slap warnings on all cosmetics and other products containing known and suspected carcinogens.

Outside Canada, a law just passed in California placing the onus on cosmetics companies to disclose to health authorities the details of toxic ingredients linked to cancer or reproductive problems.

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"The fact is, we're using so many different cosmetics and we're putting them directly onto our skin," says Madeleine Bird, a Montreal health researcher who founded a Canadian counterpart to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a U.S. coalition of health and environmental activists, last year. "We use them on our babies. It's a very intimate part of our daily lives and we want that to be as safe as possible."

But while even those in the Canadian cosmetics industry laud the move to list contents on packaging, many consumers are discovering that these labels are hardly founts of information. Ingredients are listed by unfamiliar Latin names that obscure even benign substances -- shea butter becomes butyrospermum parkii.

Unless shoppers splurge on an $1,100 dictionary to cross-reference ingredients, they are left no wiser than they were before the new rules. This is why the Canadian Cancer Society is tossing around the idea of a colour-coded logo that would flag possible carcinogens. The Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control committee also has product labelling on their agenda.

"When you pick up something at the grocery store, it should immediately tell you something about what's in that substance [so]you can make an informed decision," says Heather Logan, the director of cancer control policy at the Canadian Cancer Society. "We don't have that yet."

Aside from labelling, Health Canada does maintain a hot list of more than 500 banned and restricted chemicals. Companies selling cosmetics here are also required to disclose the ingredients contained in their products to Ottawa.

In the United States, ingredients have been listed on cosmetics for years. But there are loopholes that allow companies to conceal some suspect chemicals under the vague title of "fragrance" or refuse to name ingredients that are claimed to be trade secrets.

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"There are some ingredients that have benefits and some risk as well," says Carl Carter, director of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association. "But our feeling is that under the Canadian regulatory system, we are very confident about the safety of the substances that are used."

Some health and environmental activists don't agree. They want Health Canada to use warning labels to protect Canadians from questionable chemicals -- or to follow the aggressive stance of the European Union, where more than 1,100 chemicals in cosmetics have been banned outright.

The battle comes back to science. Research on chemicals in cosmetics is spotty. Many compounds have never been studied. Others are linked to cancer or birth defects in animals but not people -- or show a link to cancer, but at far higher doses than the levels present in cosmetics. In fact, the studies making the airtight case connecting compounds to cancer are few.

To the industry, these studies suggest that their products are safe. To activists, the science overlooks the fact these minute chemical exposures in cosmetics are repeated with successive products -- soap, deodorant, makeup -- every day.

But even where conclusive scientific evidence exists, it has not swayed health authorities in Canada or the United States to ban the substances from widespread use.

In the face of this, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group started an online listing called Skin Deep that ranks the safety of 14,000 cosmetics -- about half of those on the market -- according to their safety as determined by the research available.

And for the past four years, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in the U.S. has been pushing 500 companies -- most of them small "green" producers -- to sign a pact to substitute toxic ingredients with safe alternatives. The Body Shop, recently purchased by L'Oréal, is the biggest convert to date.

Meanwhile, growing unease about cosmetics is boosting sales of alternative products -- both at health-food stores and grocery chains. Some of these products have simply disguised suspect ingredients in earthy-looking packaging touting "natural" or "herbal" properties. But a growing number of companies are starting to sell chemical-free cosmetics. And a U.S. financial research firm recently published a report suggesting that those who ignore the push for healthier products risk a backlash.

New cosmetics brands are also emerging. Alain Menard and his wife, Karen Clark, started the Green Beaver Company in Hawkesbury, near Ottawa, after the birth of their first child three years ago. At the time, he worked as a microbiologist in pharmaceuticals and she was a biochemist with a pesticide company. But neither wanted their son exposed to the chemicals in cosmetics and both saw a market niche for an all-natural Canadian cosmetics company.

Mr. Menard welcomes the new labelling law in Canada, sure it will expose the pretenders marketing supposedly natural and organic products that are neither.

But he, too, worries about the confounding Latin names, fearing that customers will feel threatened by natural ingredients that sound like chemicals. "There may be some confusion about what these terms mean," he says.

Take Ms. Robertson. As she reads through the label on her shampoo, the names grow longer and more complicated. As hair-care products go, it ranks among the more benign. Still, it does contain methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl parabens. In the bottle are ingredients considered to be toxic, endocrine disruptors and harmful to wildlife -- a rude shock to the Vancouverite, who buys her cosmetics at a health-food store.

"To be quite honest, I'd never read down that whole ingredient list until now," she says. "I don't know what all the parabens are."

Margaret Philp is a feature writer with The Globe and Mail.

Pretty dangerous

Some compounds in personal-care products are worth watching out for.

Lead acetate: A known reproductive toxin banned in the European Union but found in some hair dyes and cleansers in North America.

Formaldehyde: A known carcinogen found in some nail products.

Toluene: A possible reproductive or developmental toxin found in some nail polishes.

Petroleum distillates: Possible carcinogen prohibited in the EU, but found in some mascara, perfume and lipstick in North America.

Ethyl acrylate: A possible carcinogen found in some mascara.

Coal tar: A known carcinogen found in dandruff shampoos, anti-itch creams and hair dyes.

Dibutyl phthalate: An endocrine disruptor and possible reproductive or developmental toxin found in some nail polish, perfume and hair spray.

Sodium lauryl sulfate: A skin irritant prone to contamination by a probable carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane used in many soaps and shampoos for its foaming properties.

Methyl, propyl, butyl and ethyl paraben: Endocrine disruptors and possible breast carcinogens used as a preservative in cosmetics such as lotions and shampoos.

-- Margaret Philp

Source: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Environmental Working Group

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