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Sunday, March 25, 2007

O, No! Oprah's Magazine Misinforms on Cosmetics

Jenny Bailly
Senior Beauty Editor
300 W 57th Street
New York, NY 10019-3741

March 16, 2007

Dear Jenny Bailly:

We were both disappointed and heartened by O, The Oprah Magazine’s recent coverage of health and cosmetics; Disappointed that a publication that so many women trust would print such a biased and error-filled story as Jolene Edgar’s “If Looks Could Kill” in the March issue, and buoyed by the short piece “Toxin Confidential” in the April issue, which at least let readers know that everyday consumer products contain toxic chemicals. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is concerned that together, the March and April issues might raise more questions about cosmetic safety than they answer. We would like to take this opportunity to respond to Edgar’s “If Looks Could Kill” article, and to ask for a meeting with your editors to discuss coverage of this issue going forward.

In five years of advocating for cosmetics safety we have not seen an article in a major publication as slanted or misleading as “If Looks Could Kill”. Edgar chose to omit the perspectives of respected researchers who have led studies on the products and chemicals in question, as well as any comments from the environmental health leaders in the national coalition of women’s and environmental groups that form the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. On the contrary, Edgar’s article quotes several industry-funded scientists. Furthermore, she provides no sources for readers to do follow up research on their own. She claims to have “quizzed scores of dermatologists, chemists and toxicologists” for the story, yet she does not quote the top scientists who conducted the studies of toxic chemicals she names in the story.

We understand the cosmetics industry is a major funder of women’s media, including O magazine. Perhaps this is why most women’s magazines have ignored the story of toxic cosmetics altogether. However, when women’s magazines do cover issues that their funders may find controversial, we expect them to adhere to common practices of journalistic integrity, such as quoting opposing viewpoints and presenting information in context – neither of which Edgar does in her piece. The following are some of the inaccuracies in the article:

Lead in lipstick: The story dismisses a 2003 internet claim that lipstick contains dangerous levels of lead, yet fails to report on 2006 product tests,(1) commissioned by news reporters in two states, which found that various brands of lipstick do contain lead – at levels up to twice the FDA limit for lead in candy. This information is easily found in an internet search. A few minutes on the web would have also revealed the most recent research indicating that lead is dangerous at levels previously thought safe.(2)

Instead of doing the research to find that new studies show there is lead in lipstick, Edgar dismisses the problem by quoting a cosmetic chemist stating: “You’ll find far more lead and mercury in the foods you eat than the lipstick you wear.” Does O support the argument that as long as cosmetics are less contaminated than swordfish, the contamination is okay?

Hair dye: The story quotes a cosmetic industry-funded dermatologist stating, “Any and all potentially carcinogenic ingredients in hair dyes were removed from the market years ago.” Edgar states that there is no evidence that hair dye causes cancer, and therefore pregnant women should continue coloring their hair. Yet the Environmental Working Group found at least three separate cancer threats in Dark and Lovely hair dye, as well as several different neurotoxins, reproductive toxins and chemicals that are toxic to the gastrointestinal system. EWG found the same or similar chemicals in several other brands of hair dye.(3) If Edgar had spent 10 minutes reviewing the publicly available science she would have found many recent studies(4) linking hair dyes, especially dark hair dyes, to cancer.

Carcinogenic contaminants: The story reports that common cosmetics ingredients DEA and TEA can become toxic when mixed with certain nitrates, yet reports that nitrates aren’t used in most cosmetics. We have found no evidence to support this claim. Furthermore, nitrosamines caused by nitrates aren’t the only carcinogenic contaminant found in cosmetics. In January 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported on product tests(5) that found the carcinogenic contaminant 1,4 dioxane in more than a dozen baby shampoos, bubble baths and adult body wash products. This contaminant is not listed on labels and most consumers are surprised to find out that soaps advertised as “pure and gentle” contain carcinogenic contaminants that can easily be removed from products. The personal care companies with 1-4 dioxane in their products responded just like they did in the O story, saying “it’s just a little bit” of carcinogen, and “1,4 dioxane is also in food, water and many other products.”

We question that logic and propose that O readers would be well served by a magazine that asked the questions we are asking:

“Why should we apply unnecessary carcinogens found in personal care products to our bodies, adding to exposures in our food and in our air?

“What is the cumulative effect of these many small exposures?

“What can individuals do to get companies to conduct comprehensive safety tests that match real-life exposures over the long term and in combination with many other chemicals?”

Endocrine disruptors: The story discusses at length one small study linking tea tree oil and lavender oils to breast development – and goes so far as to include an image of a plastic bottle with breasts under the headline-sized statement, “Tea tree and lavender oils can promote breast development.” While these findings should be further researched, it is troubling that such a small, preliminary study would be highlighted so distastefully.

In contrast, the story dismisses two decades of research showing that phthalates interfere with the development of the male reproductive tract.(6) Hundreds of animal studies show that phthalates cause birth defects in male lab animals; government researchers say the studies are likely to predict human health impacts; and new human studies now link phthalates to sperm problems, smaller penises and higher rates of undescended testes. Edgar reports that “experts in the medical community are quick to point out flaws in the (phthalates) research,” then quotes Marian Stanley, the person in charge of the trade association that exists for the sole purpose of defending phthalates. An expert in the medical community? Hardly.

The story also relays several inaccuracies regarding the science on phthalates. The story claims it was “primarily DBP” that was implicated in human studies. Again, not true. Studies by Dr. Russ Hauser(7) at the Harvard School of Public Health link the phthalate DEP – the phthalate most commonly used in cosmetics – to DNA damage in the sperm of adult men, and a study by Shanna Swan(8) of the University of Rochester correlates DEP to smaller penis size and undescended testes in human male infants.

The story claims, “After scrupulous testing, the CIR and (EU equivalent) deemed DEP safe.” What scrupulous testing? While the industry-funded US CIR panel reviewed the science on phthalates in 2002, they have conducted no toxicological testing that we are aware of, and they have no data showing the quantity of phthalates people are exposed to on a daily basis from the routine use of multiple cosmetics. In fact, it was product tests conducted by non-profit groups that revealed phthalates were present in more than 70% of personal care products tested – including shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, fragrance, hair gel and other products.(9)