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San Francisco Chronicle’s Cosmetic Scare

Science is about evidence – isn’t reporting supposed to be as well?

Editor’s note:
STATS asked the San Francisco Chronicle for comment on this article. We spoke, in some detail, to the Home and Gardens features editor, Lynette Evans, who then refused to go on the record; Evans directed us to the Chronicle’s managing editor Robert Rosenthal for comment; Rosenthal said he was passing the matter on to Meredith White, deputy managing editor. White did not respond.

Normally, we investigate what a news organization writes and not the editorial reasoning behind the story; but we were surprised by the appearance of such a one-sided piece especially in light of the draft toxicological review published this summer by the Environmental Protection Agency, which lowers the risk on DBP, one of the chemicals cited as dangerous in the Chronicle story – Trevor Butterworth.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s one-sided reporting about phthalates in cosmetics has continued the media's obsession with the supposedly harmful effects of beauty products. Armed with little more than the websites of special interest groups, the Chronicle is scaring the pants –make that the face – off of women (and some men) who use make-up across the country.

This is the way scare-mongering goes: your cosmetics have phthalates! Before we even know what phthalates are, we are scared of them. After all, they have a scary overly-chemical name to them. And all chemicals are bad, right?

The San Francisco Chronicle’s main source is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website. And no wonder the author is scared, if the only source is this site. According to EWG, less than 11 percent of over 10,000 cosmetic ingredients have been evaluated for safety by the FDA. And, continues the website, “More than one-third of all personal care products contains at least one ingredient linked to cancer.” The EWG also makes broader claims on their website, such as “Toxic chemicals linked to birth defects are being found at alarming levels in women of childbearing age.”

While STATS’ main complaint lies with the Chronicle’s willingness to report these claims without checking them out with other sources, it is worth taking some time out to look at the claims made by EWG and then repeated to the readers of the Chronicle.

First, let’s look in broad terms. It is simply untrue that the chemicals found in cosmetics have been linked to birth defects in women with “alarming levels” of these chemicals. Birth defects have been found in animals (mostly rats) that have been given extremely high doses of the chemicals. These doses are at 100-1000 times the level that humans are exposed to. So far, no studies have been able to prove any birth defects in humans. (STATS did a careful analysis of one study that was being cited by the press as suggesting birth defects, and found the study didn’t even consider the hypothesis).

There is little evidence to suggest that low-level exposure to humans would have the same effect as high-level exposure in animals. If every scientific discovery about rats were also true for humans, we would already have a cure for cancer. Similarly the statement that a third of these products have ingredients that cause cancer is misleading – once again, dosage is at issue. There are some substances that cause cancer in very high dosages, but should not be banned for use in small dosages. Just like breathing car-exhaust can’t be good for you, but we don’t ban cars because their exhaust will result in our breathing a little bit of it. Our bodies are equipped to handle a small amount of assault without developing cancer. Notably, no epidemiological studies have found that those who use more personal care products have higher rates of cancer, whereas, living in a polluted city does increase rates of cancer.

The main family of chemicals under suspicion is called “phthalates”. These substances are used for a variety of products, for a variety of reasons. They help perfumes last longer, and they also help plastic stay malleable. They are found in baby toys, medical tubing, and cosmetics. A less well-known truth is that they are also found in most of the food we eat and the dust we breathe.

There are many types of phthalates and, in contrast to what the Environmental Working Group claims, they have been tested for safety. An expert panel of scientists under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been systematically reviewing these chemicals for harmful affects by evaluating many different studies, from epidemiological studies on humans to controlled studies on animals.

One of the most difficult tasks in sorting through the amazing amount of scientific evidence is to figure out which phthalates are used, and what the evidence is about that specific phthalate.

In the case of cosmetics, as the San Francisco Chronicle would have discovered if it had it looked, the three phthalates used are DEP (diethyl phthalate), DBP (dibutyl phthalate), and DMP (dimethyl phthalate). DEP was not evaluated by the National Institutes of Health, but a PubMed search (NIH’s data base of scientifically reviewed articles on the matter) found a few articles assessing its safety; in summary: No reproductive affects found, no cancer found, no birth defects found.

Some articles suggest that high exposure is correlated with a reduced anogenital index (a ratio of distance between the base of the penis and the anus, and the weight of the child – a highly contentious measurement for its lack of accuracy in humans).  Indeed, DEP is one of the few phthalates shown not to have an effect on rat reproductivity (though it did have an effect on liver size and weight gain).

DBP was evaluated by the NIH and cosmetics were not even listed as a source for consumption: food and air were the main culprits here. DBP is commonly found in nail polish, and not cosmetics and other body-care products. This phthalate does affect reproductivity in rats – though only at high doses. Perhaps it would be reasonable to recommend that pregnant nail-biters abstain from painting their nails. Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency published a review on June 27 of the safety data on DBP, which recommends raising the human oral exposure guideline from 100 to 300 micrograms per kilo of bodyweight per day, determining that, contrary to activist claims, DBP was three times as safe as previously thought. The average human exposure to DBP is less than one microgram per kilo of bodyweight per day.

DMP was not evaluated by the NIH, but it is one of the phthalates determined not to have reproductive effects on rats. We found no studies of DMP on humans in the peer-reviewed literature.

Dosage Matters
The San Francisco Chronicle repeatedly makes the same mistake: Citing the Environmental Protection Agency, the paper claims that some ingredients of make-up are endocrine disruptors – specifically, parabens (alkyl-p-hydroxybenzoates). But without a perspective of how much exposure we must have before biological disruptions occur, this information is meaningless. All substances can kill us in large quantities, from salt to sugar to water. In order to evaluate the risk associated with make-up, we need to know the safe level of exposure (or if there truly is no safe level of exposure, then evidence to support that statement) and we need to know whether exposure through make-up is beyond that safe level.

Notably, the Chronicle did not quote any medical researchers interested in any of these supposedly evil chemicals found in our cosmetics. How is it possible that a major newspaper can make a claim about something being dangerous to our health without one serious research scientist included? Why didn’t the author of this article look on PubMed to see what published research has to say about phthalates and other chemicals? Why aren’t basic principles of toxicology – that the amount of exposure matters – applied when attempting to ferret out health risks associated with using makeup?

Could the same article be written about the phthalates that live in medical tubing for premature babies, or is it just make-up that’s evil?