So last Wednesday, the Society for Women's Health Research hosted a Capitol Hill briefing called "The Make Up of Your Make Up" (see what they did there?) to discuss, "the science of cosmetics and its impact on women's health." They sent me a press release right after, so I could know what a great time they all had.
And my first response was: Color me excited! A great women's health nonprofit getting Congress to pay attention to all the women's health issues going on in the world of beauty? This is big stuff.
Linda Katz, MD, MPH, Director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors at the Food & Drug Administration kicked things off with an overview of the FDA's responsibilities. Which I'm sure was good times. And then they got to the rest of their speakers:
With FDA oversight defined, John E. Bailey, PhD, Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President for Science of the Personal Care Products Council, shared more information on the cosmetic regulatory system including hazard vs. risk and how products are developed. Bailey said the steps for product development are, "to decide on type of product, who is intended to use it, what do you want the product to do, what regulatory body does it fall under (over-the-counter drugs or cosmetics), and finally, selection of ingredients by formulator."
Halyna Breslawec, PhD, Deputy Director of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), explained the approval process for cosmetics and how ingredients are deemed safe. The mission of CIR is to "thoroughly review and access the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased, and expert manner, and publish the results in open, peer-reviewed literature." The most frequently used ingredients and ingredients of concern are given high priority from CIR for review. They found 1124 ingredients to be safe, 875 safe with qualifications, 9 unsafe and 51 with insufficient data. In total, 2109 ingredients have been reviewed by CIR to date.
Rounding out the panel, Tina Alster MD, Director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center, offered insight into the top dermatological concerns with cosmetics. Even though cosmetics are deemed safe, some women face adverse reactions, including irritant, allergic, photoallergic and other reactions. Dermatitis from topical prescriptions is common so women should be diligent in observing how their skin reacts to different products. Alster's main take-home messages for consumers are "sun protection is crucial, know your ABCDE's (have any and all suspicious lesions checked by a dermatologist), and topicals have great therapeutic efficacy but also potential for side effects."
Following the presentations, guests were treated to a reception to learn more about cosmetics from various companies and to ask further questions of the panel.
Ground Control to Major Tom! Because, yeah, there's something wrong. Apparently SWHR decided to discuss the impact of cosmetics on women's health with… the scientists that the beauty industry pays to tell everyone that cosmetics are good for women's health. Let's review:
1. John Bailey is the "chief scientist" of the industry's main trade association.
2. Halyna Breslawec works for the CIR, which is the industry-funded panel that reviews cosmetic safety (and shares office space with the main trade association).
3. Tina Alster sounds all impartial in the write-up above - Georgetown, ooh fancy! - but is also "the consulting dermatologist to Lancôme" according to her official bio over here. I'm guessing she doesn't do that pro bono.
Now, I don't mind giving the industry a place at the table when we're talking about what's going on with their products. They make ‘em, they get to talk about ‘em. And they're super convinced that their safety review process is awesome. (Even though they've only reviewed about 20 percent of the over 10,000 chemicals used in cosmetics today. What? They're being thorough, don't rush them.)
But where were the impartial scientists and doctors, you know, the ones who don't get paid to say beauty products are safe? Where were the activists like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics who have spent years researching why they might not all be so safe? Where were the salon workers, who are experiencing health issues from breathing this stuff in all the time? And where were the consumers who'd like get some actual straight answers for a change?
And most of all: Why is a reputable women's health nonprofit throwing a singles mixer for a $330 billion industry* that seems to need no help finding its way into the government's snuggly warm embrace?
"The safety of cosmetics is an important issue for women's health," said Phyllis Greenberger, MSW, President and CEO of SWHR. Oh… nope, still confused.
*Estimate of industry value per Harvard business historian Geoffrey Jones.