We regularly avoid food additives with strange- sounding names, spurn salt, and shun saturated fats in the quest for a healthy lifestyle. Ingredient labels on food are scrutinised as never before for signs of unwanted preservatives, flavourings, and colourants. And yet, after a healthy breakfast of wholegrain, non-GM cereals with nothing added, millions will make straight for the bathroom and splash, rub and spray cocktails of unknown chemicals on to their skin and hair.
While makers of baked beans and ketchup are required to list every one of their ingredients, cosmetic producers are not. Indeed, in some cases, the list of ingredients would be so big, that it would be physically impossible to reveal all. Cosmetics generally consist of an extensive combination of chemicals, with more than 3,000 available to makers in Europe. Critics maintain that little is known about the health impacts of many of them, particularly the effects of prolonged use.
Chemicals in hairsprays, perfumes and loose powders can be inhaled, irritating the lungs, while lipstick is inadvertently licked and swallowed. Chemicals in all kinds of dyes, cosmetics and fragrances enter the body through the skin surprisingly easily - that is why rub-on and spray-on pain-relievers work, and it's also the way that an increasing variety of drugs are being delivered. Kim Erikson, author of Drop-dead Gorgeous - Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics, says that the advantages of the synthetic ingredients in cosmetics are that they are inexpensive, stable, and have a long shelf-life: "Manufacturers love them, but although the majority of products appear safe in the short run, the results from long-term use could be unhealthy."
Researchers at the Universite Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, say that one of the problems facing doctors trying to find the source of any problems is that new compounds are constantly being used as the industry makes refinements to its products. Another problem is the impracticality of carrying out long-term observations on the effects of chemicals. Some researchers and consumer groups fear that because the chemicals are used regularly, over time a cumulative build-up may result in as-yet-unknown effects on health.
Meanwhile, in the short term, skin allergies are a problem for an increasing number of consumers, who may be particularly sensitive to fragrances. One notable coup for the EU Scientific Committee on Cosmetic and Non- food Products is that it has pioneered a requirement for fragrance-makers to list any of 26 different ingredients that can cause reactions. Until now, the ingredients of fragrances have been allowed to bask in anonymity, leaving the consumer to find out the hard away whether or not the allergen to which they are sensitive is included. But that requirement, which should come into force within two years, applies only to the listed ingredients known to cause problems in some people.
So toxic are some substances in use that consumers can react to the tiniest of amounts: "Oak moss is widely used and is a very important cause of reactions," says Dr Ian White, consultant dermatologist at St John's Institute of Dermatology, Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London. "Until very recently we did not know that it was chloratranol in the moss that was so fantastically potent." As a result of this discovery about oak moss, whose role is to help the fragrance stay longer on the skin, it is expected that pressure will be exerted to restrict its use in cosmetic products.
Some researchers and consumer groups believe that, of all of the cosmetics on the market, some hair dyes pose the biggest potential risk. This week, the EU's Scientific Committee on Cosmetic and Non- food Products will conclude that the safety of 57 chemicals used in hair dyes cannot be guaranteed. …