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Published February 23, 2013, 11:36 PM

Buyers beware: Regulators leave decisions largely up to consumers

CHRISTINE, N.D. – Karen Ellingson recently saw her grandmother’s final nursing exam from 1939. One question intrigued Ellingson: Name three predisposing causes of disease. Her grandmother correctly answered chemicals, germs and injuries.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

CHRISTINE, N.D. – Karen Ellingson recently saw her grandmother’s final nursing exam from 1939.

One question intrigued Ellingson: Name three predisposing causes of disease. Her grandmother correctly answered chemicals, germs and injuries.

Ellingson, who describes herself as having a “passion for a chemical-free world,” started using natural products more than three years ago after learning about the potential dangers of some chemicals.

“I found it interesting that even back to 1939, chemicals were recognized as harmful to our health,” Ellingson says.

Regulation of the cosmetics industry in the U.S. hasn’t changed much since her grandmother took that test in 1939.

The Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act was enacted in 1938, and no major legislation regarding the regulation of the cosmetics industry has passed in Congress since.

Regulation in the U.S. is not as strict as the regulation in other countries, like those in the EU.

Eight chemical ingredients are prohibited in cosmetics by the FDA. The EU has banned more than 1,000.

Under the FD&C Act, cosmetic products and ingredients do not require FDA approval before they go on the market. The exception is color additives (other than those used in most hair dyes).

Companies and individuals who market cosmetics have the legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products, according to the FDA.

Legislation to change the current standards of regulation has been introduced in recent years.

Bob Root, chief technology officer of healing therapies company Keys Care, has been involved with some of those bills.

A possible reason that there haven’t been any significant changes in the regulation is because those looking for change are trying to do too much at one time, Root says.

“Don’t try to eat the elephant in one bite,” he says. “You want to get the door cracked open and then aim for more subsequent legislation.”

The Cosmetic Safety Amendments Act of 2012 was introduced last April and has yet to pass. The act would establish new procedures and requirements for the registration of cosmetic product manufacturers, the submission of ingredient statements, and the reporting of serious adverse health effects.

Since regulation is minimal, consumers are on their own to find healthy products, says Terri Bly, a former clinical psychologist.

Bly understands the quest for chemical-free makeup and beauty products. The Moorhead native owns The Nature of Beauty, a natural, organic and non-toxic beauty product boutique in Mendota Heights, Minn.

When Bly conducted pre-surgery assessment and post-surgery counseling for women who’d had gastric bypass, she routinely saw the same health issues.

“I just knew that wasn’t the whole picture,” she says.

One day, she heard an interview on National Public Radio with a scientist discussing chemicals that mimic estrogen.

“It was one of those drive-off-the-road kinds of moments,” Bly said. “It could explain what I was seeing. Estrogen was the common link to all of them. I knew I wanted to get the info out there.”

Synthetic chemicals that mimic or block hormones and disrupt the body’s normal functions are called endocrine disruptors, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Phthalates and parabens are common chemicals in most cosmetic and body care products. They’re all also listed with more than 850 other endocrine disruptors on the TEDX List of Potential Endocrine Disruptors.

While the research and information about chemicals in beauty and personal products can be overwhelming, Bly says it’s important to not panic.

“This industry has people on all places on the spectrum where you get some people who vilify everything to the point that you just want to throw your hands up and say ‘Well screw it then, everything’s bad for me,’ ” she says.

Reading the ingredient label of products, even those marketed as natural or organic, is an important step to creating a healthier beauty routine, Bly says.

Only the United States Department of Agriculture has the authority to label a cosmetic as organic – if a product is without the USDA seal, there’s no guarantee that it’s organic.

Bly says that besides reading product labels, gradually replacing existing products with natural products helps for an easy transition.

“You’re not going to find one you love just as much that’s natural within a week,” she says. “Don’t try to be perfect because we don’t have enough information to make perfect choices.”

Knowing what you’re getting in natural products is one reason why Ellingson continues to use them.

She feels she’s doing something good for herself and the environment by using healthy products.

“I have the assurance of knowing that what I put on my skin is ultimately going to enter my body,” she says. “I am also concerned about what chemicals are doing to our environment that must be preserved for our future generations.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525.