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How Deadly Are Your Beauty Products?

What's in your shampoo and mascara? With a new law out aimed at increasing the transparency of cosmetics companies, Shannon Donnelly looks at the likelihood of toxic dangers hidden in everyday products.

08.14.10 6:51 PM ET

Is Congress about to invade the beauty industry? Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) recently introduced the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, which, if passed, will require more transparency from cosmetics companies, such as a mandatory listing of all chemicals on the label of each product. It will also force companies to disclose any adverse health effects linked to the chemicals used in their products.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Beauty Products’ Hidden Dangers

This push is aimed at forcing cosmetic companies to fully disclose or ditch some of their most dangerous ingredients, including known or suspected carcinogens, such as phthalates, parabens, 1,4-dioxane, and even formaldehyde. “This legislation requires real FDA oversight and relies on independent scientific analysis by the FDA of the manufacturers' claims about which ingredients are safe,” Schakowsky recently said.

Also making the case for “safe cosmetics” are Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, authors of the new book No More Dirty Looks, which, with the help of experts, explains the toxins in everyday beauty products, and recommends alternatives like DIY replacements and some of the new, natural cosmetic lines on the market.

Part of the problem, claims Dirty Looks, is that the beauty industry has gone largely unchecked by the FDA. The wide-ranging industry encompasses hygiene staples like soap and shampoo; cosmetics from lipstick to mascara; and the burgeoning cosmeceutical market, which promises prescription-strength fixes for wrinkles and acne without an actual prescription. The FDA’s legal rights over cosmetics differs from other products they regulate, including drugs, biologics, and medical devices.

No More Dirty Looks: The Truth about Your Beauty Products—and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics. By Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt. Da Capo Lifelong Books. 304 pages. $14.95.

When reached for comment, FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey said, “Right now, the authority that’s given to us by Congress is that cosmetic products can be marketed without review from the FDA, with the exception of colors: Colors do have to be approved.” Ultimately, she says, “The manufacturer is responsible for marketing a safe product.” If the product does turn out to be unsafe, or appears to be causing harmful reactions in customers, then the FDA can step in and investigate, DeLancey says.

One of the main sticking points, write O’Connor and Spunt, is measuring what the FDA considers to be a safe dose of a product against what’s actually safe in the long term. “You can come up with an answer for whether a product is an irritant in a short period of time, let’s say after two days, when you apply it on animals in the lab,” says Dr. Shadi Farhangrazi, a neuroscientist and founder and co-editor of Biotrends. “But realistically, you cannot say what happens after one year, two years, 20 years of use.”

Dr. Farhangrazi hopes women will become better advocates for their own health and check the ingredient list on their beauty products as carefully as they do the food they buy at the grocery store. “A lot of us buy cosmetics based on, ‘OK, what color is right for me?’ We don’t ask all those critical questions that we have to ask. We just have to become better consumers.”

That’s a tip that will look good on everyone.

Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.