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Reading labels can help us avoid toxic ingredients in cosmetics, advocate says

Tara Lee, 37, of Oldsmar is the co-founder of Tampa-based Best in Beauty (, an online resource for information and advice about the cosmetics industry. It sells what she calls "healthy beauty products" from a variety of manufacturers — products made with all-natural ingredients and without components such as lead, mercury and formaldehyde. Lee is a former assistant director at MTV and MADtv and was a producer at Home Shopping Network, "working with every cosmetic line that walked the halls."

Lee has launched the "Labels for Life" campaign at to teach consumers to read the labels on beauty products and pressure manufacturers to disclose what's in the products we put on, or into, our bodies.

We spoke with Lee recently about her cosmetic concerns.

How did you get involved in advocating for nontoxic beauty products?

I have two children (a daughter, 4, and a son, 6). Their toys were being recalled because of lead paint. Then I read an article about the presence of lead in many lipsticks. That was my "aha" moment: Wait a second, here I am returning the kids' toys because of the potential of lead poisoning, yet I'm allowed to put lead directly on my lips, where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. It made no sense to me.

Some people would say this is a scare tactic. Potentially toxic chemicals occur naturally in everything from fruits and vegetables to tap water. What's the big deal?

That's true. But it's the cumulative exposure. Tolerable levels from one chemical source can contribute to an unsafe overall exposure. Another huge thing: Europe and Canada have banned 1,300 chemicals because of toxic hazards, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned only 10. Why?

What would you like people to learn from paying closer attention to the labels on cosmetics?

We've learned to read the labels on foods, to look at the calorie count, the amount of good and bad fats, the cholesterol. We've become more educated consumers in that regard. It's time to be educated in that regard about the cosmetics we buy. It's as simple as turning it over and reading the back of the bottle. One of the warning signs is if 75 to 100 percent of the ingredients are chemicals I can't pronounce, we need to think twice. I'm not a chemist, I don't know what 75 percent of these substances are. We have a list of the top 10 most common ingredients to look for and avoid. One of them is sodium lauryl sulfate, a foaming agent in shampoo and soap. The majority of kids' toothpastes have it, but it can cause eye irritation and skin rashes.

I once saw a hair relaxer that was marketed to children. The bottle said, "Keep away from eyes and mouth, avoid the scalp" — for a hair relaxer? — "may cause blindness if swallowed." As a mother, that's when it changed for me. The packaging showed a cute little girl, cute hearts . . . it just floors me. If people just turn the package over and read the label, they'll make educated decisions. We can change the industry by changing our buying habits.

Your Best in Beauty line of cosmetics isn't cheap. (Lipstick and mascara, for example, are $15.95.) Some people might think you're creating this concern in order to make money yourself.

When it comes to natural ingredients, we do pay more. We pay more for organic food at the grocery store. I hope we'll drive prices down because of increased consumption. We offer free shipping and handling on everything and there's no minimum purchase. We used to offer free samples but that became cost-prohibitive. I'd like to get back to that.

Tell us about the Labels for Life "Message on a Mirror" campaign.

I as one person can't change the world. I'm trying to get consumers involved. We thought it would be a neat way to incorporate lipstick into our campaign. So we're asking people to write a message to the FDA on a mirror in lipstick, voicing their concerns about what's in cosmetics. Take a picture of it and I'll send it to the head of women's health and cosmetics at the FDA. That way they'll see it's not just me, others are involved, it's not just one voice. (Images and details are at; click on "about us" and scroll down.)

Your push for mandatory labeling might be viewed as yet more government intrusion into our lives.

I've heard that. Well, we need a government for a reason. Thankfully the government was there to recall toys with lead. I'd like to see the same thing in cosmetic products. A 6-year-old can't read a label on toothpaste or shampoo.

Judy Stark, former Times homes and garden editor, is now a freelance writer in St. Petersburg.

Reading labels can help us avoid toxic ingredients in cosmetics, advocate says 06/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 19, 2009 4:30am]
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