By the time you read this today, you may already have brushed your pearly whites with toothpaste, scrubbed your face with soap, lathered your head with shampoo, hit your pits with deodorant, smoothed lotion over your legs and, if it's your style, dabbed on mascara, lipstick, hair gel or cologne. But do you know -- or care -- what's in all that stuff?
If you're anything like the 1,000-plus Portland women who responded to a recent survey about personal-care products, chances are you:
-- Don't know what chemicals and other compounds are in the goods commonly used to clean up and fluff up;
-- Believe manufacturers should be required to list all ingredients on product labels;
-- Say manufacturers should be responsible for testing all ingredients for health impacts;
-- Think there are health risks associated with using personal-care products;
-- Yet, you generally trust the products you use.
The results of the just released "What's in My Makeup Bag?" report may add ammunition to an effort simmering nationwide among environmental and health advocates to update laws and upgrade standards for cosmetics and personal-care products.
If advocates succeed, consumers might one day be able to decipher exactly what's in the lotions and potions they routinely use -- something they can't do now because of exceptions for fragrance ingredients and trace elements. Such knowledge could affect buying decisions in a global industry with more than $250 billion in annual retail sales.
The report is based on a web survey conducted in May -- a collaboration between the nonprofit Oregon Environmental Council and Metro, the regional government.
Metro commissioned Portland State University's Survey Research Lab to query 9,737 undergraduate women at PSU. The survey inquired about the personal-care products they use and their attitudes about the products; 1,008 eligible respondents, around 10 percent, completed the online questionnaire.
It targeted young women -- most were English-speaking Caucasians between 17 and 30 -- in part because they use twice as many personal-care products as men, exposing them to higher daily levels of potentially toxic chemicals used in some products; such toxics are of special concern to women of childbearing age. Plus, they typically choose products their children and families use.
According to the Oregon Environmental Council, some of the estimated 6,000 to 10,000 ingredients used in hygiene and skin-care products and cosmetics are known carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and neurotoxins, which can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.
"We know that these chemicals end up in our bodies," said Renee Hackenmiller-Paradis, a geneticist and program director for the environmental council.
Among other research, she cited biomonitoring studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which phthalates, parabens and formaldehyde were found in blood and urine.
The class of chemicals known as phthalates has been linked to birth defects, asthma, early puberty and low sperm counts. In animal studies, parabens have been linked to cancer and, in high doses, have interfered with reproduction. Formaldehyde has been linked to cancer.
Studies are unclear about the source of chemicals found in test subjects, the compounds being ubiquitous in American life.
Those who responded to the PSU survey said they used, on average, 10 personal-care products a day. Some women didn't use any, while others dipped into as many as 50 a day.
Metro, which paid $9,037 for the survey, commissioned it as part of the agency's mandate to reduce waste and toxicity of waste, said Lisa Heigh, senior solid-waste planner and toxics-reduction specialist. Metro can't reach its goals, she said, by waiting for waste to be generated. "We have to look upstream ... What products and chemicals are used most by our community?"
What surprised Heigh were the huge numbers: When asked what toiletries and cosmetics they used, survey respondents identified more than 8,000 different products and 765 brands.
"Everything you take off the shelf should be good for you and good for the planet," Heigh said. "Consumers need to simplify their use of the products they don't know enough about, and protect themselves and their families, and demand from the government that we do our work."
Gripes about the personal-care/cosmetics industry include what's perceived by some to be a scarcity of regulation, and laws that haven't kept up with advances in chemistry and product development.
Environmental and health advocates argue the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act hasn't been adequately updated since Congress passed it in 1938. They say the law doesn't equip the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the chief agency responsible, with the teeth it needs to safeguard consumers, in large part because FDA regulation doesn't begin until products reach store shelves.
"The truth is, the cosmetics industry is about the least regulated industry that there is," said Fred Berman of the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology at Oregon Health & Science University. "The people responsible for substantiating safety are the cosmetics makers themselves."
In 2010, CROET, as it's known, was involved in testing that showed Brazilian Blowout, a popular, high-end hair straightener, contained unacceptably high levels of formaldehyde, even though it was labeled "formaldehyde-free." Testing followed complaints by a Portland salon worker that the product made her sick; similar complaints popped up worldwide.
The FDA issued a warning about it but doesn't have the authority to recall the product.
Formaldehyde, known as a probable human carcinogen, is allowed in small amounts and is often found in shampoo, conditioner and lotion.
This summer, members of Congress, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., sponsored the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, which if passed would require labeling all ingredients and would establish stricter safety standards. Passage is not expected anytime soon.
The Personal Care Products Council, the trade group that represents most of the industry's manufacturers and suppliers, doesn't favor the proposed Safe Cosmetics Act.
"We think it's over-reaching," said John Hurson, the council's executive vice president of government affairs, "because the assumption in the Safe Cosmetics Act is that every ingredient is suspect, including water ... That just isn't accurate."
Labeling law allows companies to exclude ingredients used in fragrances, typically made of a mix of chemicals. Some of them, the "Makeup Bag" report says, may include phthalates and synthetic musks that can damage organs, cause asthma and disrupt hormones.
The industry considers fragrance ingredients trade secrets which, if disclosed, could enable knockoff products closely mimicking the real thing and that would be bad for business.
The trade group is pushing legislation it favors -- a law, Hurson said, that would modernize statutory regulation and would add mandatory recall language.
He and Halyna Breslawec, the council's chief scientist, argued that their industry gets a bad rap -- that it tests ingredients and formulations extensively before products go to market, and that manufacturers list most ingredients on labels. They said that only a couple dozen substances have raised concerns among the thousands of ingredients used in the 11 billion items sold annually.
"There's no public health benefit to reviewing all of those," Hurson said.
"These products are being used every single day. If there was a huge health impact from the use of these products -- a negative health impact -- that certainly would have shown itself with the number of uses already."
"Should people worry?" asked OHSU's Berman. "Are people dying as a result of cosmetics? Epidemiologic studies haven't shown that ... But we have to know what's in these products before we can understand what the risks might be ... People should be aware that we don't really know."