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How Dangerous Are Your Cosmetics?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit public-interest research group known for making connections between chemical exposure and adverse health conditions. The Washington-based organization has made it easy to calculate your risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances through the personal care products you use. In its new "Skin Deep" study EWG uses a complex formula to assign a health-risk rating to each of 7,500 personal-care products.

The rating system offers a means of quantifying the answer to a controversial question: Just what are we doing to ourselves when we slather stuff on our bodies? Please don't shrug this issue off. It is important to recognize that whatever you spread on your skin has a very real chance of being absorbed into your blood stream and causing some serious damage in your body.

Finding your cosmetics risk rating is easy. Just go to the "Skin Deep" report and type in the brand name of your deodorant, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and whatever else you use. The EWG research shows the typical adult uses nine such products per day. The site will tell you how many ingredients the products collectively contain. The average adult load is 126 unique chemicals, says EWG. The calculator will rate the aggregate health threat those ingredients may pose to you.

Each product is ranked according to its ingredients' potential to cause cancer, trigger allergic reactions, interfere with the endocrine (hormonal) system, impair reproduction or damage a developing fetus; any harmful impurities in the product are also considered. Containing unstudied ingredients or a "penetration enhancer" that helps chemicals get absorbed through the skin also enter into the equation, as does any violation of industry safety recommendations surrounding its use.

Environmental Working Group June 2004

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