It began more than a decade ago with four women who wondered whether the hair spray, perfume and shampoo they were using every day were safe.
Their quest to find an answer led them to spend hours reading the labels on beauty products. What they read disturbed them: lists of chemicals and ingredients whose names they couldn't pronounce.
This bootstrap effort grew into a national movement — the San Francisco-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics — that has transformed the way consumers shop for personal care items, pushed the cosmetics industry to change the way it makes products, pressured lawmakers to call for more oversight and moved Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, to announce a policy banning some harmful chemicals from beauty merchandise.
The group also spearheaded the creation of Skin Deep, a public database of tens of thousands of commonly used chemicals and beauty products, which revealed that 89 percent of the ingredients commonly used in cosmetics hadn't been assessed for health risks.
Today the Skin Deep website rates the safety of more than 75,000 products.
While the Food and Drug Administration has banned a few chemicals from cosmetics, the agency does not test or approve products before they go to market and cannot recall products, leaving safety in the hands of manufacturers. There are more than 12,500 chemicals used in cosmetics, according to researchers.
Chemicals of concern
Concern: A neurotoxin that can lead to learning, language and behavioral problems such as lowered IQ. Young children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
Use: Color stabilizer.
Where: Lipstick, hair conditioner, hair color for men, face paint for children.
The Food and Drug Administration in 2012 found lead in 400 lipstick brands, with Maybelline and L'Oreal having the highest content. Of the 400 lipsticks tested, 380 tested above 0.1 ppm, which is the FDA's upper limit for lead in candy. The Maybelline and L'Oreal shades had 70 times more than that.
Concern: A carcinogen linked to several cancers, including leukemia.
Where: Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives have been found in shampoos, body washes and baby products. Wet n Wild brand nail polish and some nail hardeners and eyelash glue contain formaldehyde.
Concern: Linked to changes in hormone levels and increased risk of cancer, especially breast and prostate cancers.
FDA: "Triclosan is not currently known to be hazardous to humans."
Where: Antibacterial soap, body wash, shave gel, face wash, deodorant, mascara, blush, eye shadow, hand and foot cream, and about 17 types of Colgate toothpaste. Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of more than 50 beauty brands, pledged to remove triclosan from products by 2014.
A group of chemicals; the most widely used in beauty products are dibutyl and diethyl phthalates.
Concern: Act as a hormone disrupter, affecting the reproductive system. Studies have connected phthalates to infertility, sperm production decrease, premature birth, obesity and birth defects.
FDA: "It's not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on health."
Use: To prevent nail polish from cracking, to keep hair products flexible after applied to hair, to hold the scent in perfume and as a solvent for oils.
Where: Fragrances, soaps, hand and body lotions, shampoos, sunscreen, hair spray, hair gel, hair mousse, deodorant, body wash and nail polish. The Skin Deep database shows about 66 products with dibutyl phthalates.
Concern: Toxic to the human nervous system, potentially harming the reproductive and cardiovascular systems.
FDA: Mercury "can damage the kidneys and the nervous system and interfere with the development of the brain in unborn children and very young children." The FDA warns "consumers not to use skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, or lotions that might contain mercury."
Where: The FDA has restricted mercury in cosmetics, but it is still found in some brands of mascara, including the brand Love My Eyes, and skin-whitening products. It has been found in creams and soaps made in other countries and sold in the United States.