March 7, 2006

‘Skin Deep’ Site Looks at Product Safety

Just because something is derived from a plant, doesn't mean it's entirely safe for humans to use - especially on your skin. Have you ever heard of poison ivy?

The Environmental Working Group created an interactive guide rating the product safety of personal-care products on its Web site. "Skin Deep" is a searchable database featuring information on more than 14,000 shampoos, lotions, deodorants, sunscreens and other products.

"The cosmetics industry is essentially a self-regulating industry," says Jane Houlihan, the EWG's vice president for science. "Companies are making vastly different decisions, and the safety of products vary widely. Some contain products that are safe to eat, others have carcinogens that are linked to birth defects."

Indeed, cosmetics do not need FDA approval before hitting the market, though the FDA can seek enforcement action. The FDA does have laws overseeing the labeling of beauty products but not the safety studies. That's left to the companies.

Houlihan says consumers often base their decisions on what you'd think would be common sense - petroleum chemicals would be more dangerous than something that grows in the garden, for example - but that's not always true.

However, Houlihan recommends organically grown products as generally the safest choice because those products were grown without pesticides. "Eliminating pesticide residues and eliminating pesticide in the environment always helps, but you still can't ensure it's perfectly safe for skin or lips."

The EWG is a nonprofit research organization specializing in environmental investigations.