On a blustery afternoon, just down the road from a Mission Valley lot that’s already advertising Christmas trees, costumed sign bearers point the way to a recently opened Halloween store. Every October “they just pop up,” says one of the store’s temporary hires, explaining the magical birth of the seasonal one-stop shops.
What pops up with them is a rash of health concerns. Last year it was toxic black henna tattoos and lead warnings on Halloween makeup sold in Target stores (printed only because California requires a warning for detectable amounts of lead, for which the Centers for Disease Control say no safe blood level has been identified).
But there’s more to the story than annual news fodder. It isn’t just one night, one goblin glob-fest before it’s all washed down the drain and into the waterways. Ghosts with names like carbon black and terephthalate haunt us all year long. Makeup from China, meant to be smeared on children, calls attention to the stuff that makes the green so gooey and the goo so green. But the same chemicals leach into human bodies on a daily basis from ordinary shampoo, deodorant, mouthwash, creams, and cosmetics. With few exceptions, the chemicals in personal-care products are unregulated.
“Most people think there are some requirements for safety testing of products, but that is not the case,” says Stacy Malkan, San Francisco–based cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of nonprofit health and environmental groups that work to overhaul the industry (as Europe has already done). Dr. Sharon Jacob, a San Diego dermatologist and UCSD clinical professor who has treated chemical reactions, shares the groups’ concerns.
The Food and Drug Administration admits it is toothless. “Except for color additives, FDA does not have the authority to approve cosmetic products or ingredients,” states the agency’s website. Halloween makeup products, the website says, “are considered cosmetics and are therefore subject to the same regulations as other cosmetics, including the same restrictions on color additives.”
Toxic color additives, however, abound. Like PPD (p-phenylenediamine) in black henna, also used in hair dye, lipstick, and colorant shampoo. “There is no way for a consumer to know at what concentration a chemical is in a product without sending it to a lab and spending a few hundred bucks,” Malkan says.
Last year, Dr. Jacob was in the news calling for black henna, used by some tattoo artists to extend the life of tattoos, to be made illegal. Yet, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s webpage on henna dyes, it already is. Even ordinary henna is illegal when applied to skin: “Henna, a coloring made from a plant, is approved only for use as a hair dye, not for direct application to the skin, as in the body-decorating process known as mehndi.” Yet San Diego’s henna parlors freely advertise their FDA-outlawed services, even broadcasting them to reporters last year when black henna panic erupted.
In the wake of many complaints and a lawsuit after consumers were injured by black henna tattoos, the administration issued an import alert and warned that the tattoos may cause serious allergic reactions. While the offending ingredient, PPD, is allowed only in low concentrations, Malkan points out that consumers are bombarded by chemicals. Small amounts from many sources add up. The FDA, however, doesn’t consider cumulative exposure.
“There’s no way to know what by-products are there or combined toxicities, and many chemicals have not been studied at all,” Malkan says. Aside from ingredient lists and some boilerplate warnings on labels, it’s buyer beware. She describes her recent foray into a Halloween store as “quite frightening.” There were “lots of questionable products,” she says, “including hair sprays with warnings to not use around the eyes, ears, and mouth and to not inhale, as if that were possible.” In Hot Hair Neon Pink, made by Fun Unlimited, “we found many dyes that have government bans or warnings,” Malkan says.
“Some of the stuff is marked nontoxic, but it is definitely not.”
In May, Dr. Jacob signed a letter along with Malkan and other advocacy groups requesting Johnson & Johnson to remove hazardous chemicals from their products “and switch to safer alternatives.” Lab tests, commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, had found the suspected human carcinogens formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane in Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and other products.
Among the letter’s requests: “Phase all phthalates out of your products.”
Phthalates are known for their assault on hormones, which regulate cellular functions but are known by most people for their role in shaping the reproductive system. Under the influence of phthalates, amphibians have been shown to turn hermaphrodite; a warning, researchers say, for two-legged creatures.
It didn’t take long to find phthalates and other ghoulish ingredients in a local big-box store selling Halloween makeup. In Grossmont Center’s Walmart, the aisles are getting their bones picked. Parents, tots, and tweens rummage through the wares, trying on hats, wielding plastic swords, and discussing costumes. Row upon row of no-brand makeup hangs from the hooks. Long ingredient lists suggest the components of rockets, not creams for lips, skin, and scalp. No-brand Neon Glitter Makeup from Taiwan has phthalates in its lipstick and roll-on face makeup, listed in the top 4 of 12 ingredients. Food and Drug Administration rules state that the amount of each chemical in a product is shown by “descending order of predominance.” In humans, phthalates are linked to birth defects and infertility, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“I haven’t heard of [phthalates] in lip gloss,” Malkan says. “Very interesting.” Malkan’s group has written extensively about phthalates in cosmetics. “Phthalates shouldn’t be in products at any concentration,” she says.
Also lurking in Walmart lipstick and roll-on makeup is D&C Red No. 7, a Food and Drug–restricted color — not for use near the eyes. It tangles with several other dyes. Ingredients with worse profiles, according to the Cosmetic Safety Database, a consumer tool launched by the Environmental Working Group, are found in products in Mission Valley’s Halloween store, as well as Walmart: parabens, BHT, and EDTA, for example. Even mineral oil, a liquid mixture of petroleum hydrocarbons, can be toxic due to contamination by known or suspected carcinogens. Mineral oil is an ingredient in lipstick and base makeup sold in Walmart.