Imagine this as a movie montage: A little over a week ago, several Allure editors were reading their morning news and suddenly and simultaneously spit their coffee/tea/green juice on their newspaper/laptop/smartphone when they read the headline "Lipstick Warning for Pregnant Moms." (The New York Post article seems to no longer appear online, but a helpful lipstick enthusiast scanned and posted it to a forum.) The intro paragraph is a scary read: "Pregnant women who were exposed to chemicals found in common beauty products like lipstick and nail polish could be putting their babies' intellectual development at risk, a Columbia University study finds."
The study in question, "Persistent Associations Between Maternal Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates on Child IQ at Age 7 Years," measured phthalates in the urine of inner-city moms when they were in the third trimester of pregnancy, then gave their children IQ tests at age 7. Children whose mothers were exposed to the highest concentrations of phthalates had lower IQs than those whose mothers had the lowest levels of phthalate exposure during pregnancy.
So how did that newspaper article get from this data to "lipstick warning"? We called the study author, Pam Factor-Litvak, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center, to find out. "Phthalates are ubiquitous in the environment," says Factor-Litvak. "They're in plastics-they're what makes them flexible-and they hold fragrances, so they're used in cosmetics and things like cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, and air fresheners."
The Columbia study didn't break down how the women it tested were exposed to phthalates-whether through plastic food containers or cleaning products or, yes, lipstick-but we reached out to several large beauty companies to find out how frequently they use phthalates in their products. Every company we reached out to has either eliminated this class of chemicals from its formulas or is in the process of doing so. Revlon, L'Oréal, and Unilever (whose brands include Dove and Vaseline) don't use phthalates. Procter & Gamble (whose beauty brands include CoverGirl and Pantene) has eliminated phthalates from "more than 99 percent" of its formulations: "We have an exit plan for the few remaining uses, which we believe will be measured in months, not years," says Paul Fox, their corporate communications director. And Johnson & Johnson told us they have never used the phthalates evaluated in the Columbia study in their personal-care products. "All of our baby products worldwide are phthalate-free," says Peggy Ballman, the company's communications director. "In 2006, we stopped using the cosmetic phthalate, diethyl phthalate, in new adult products, and we have publicly committed to phasing out its use in all of our adult products by the end of 2015."
Whether or not further research confirms the risks of phthalate exposure in pregnancy, it's clear that the biggest players in the beauty industry are well aware that their customers don't want these potentially harmful ingredients in their products and have already taken action to eliminate them.
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