Pregnant women warned off make-up

Study links birth defects to mothers' use of cosmetics

Spare a thought for the mum-to-be: no booze; no fags; no pâté; no fancy cheese; no eggs; and, probably, a wild craving for coal. Now pregnant woman have been told they have to make do without beauty products.

Growing concerns over the exposure of pregnant women to chemicals that may lead to birth defects have prompted calls for a new EU-wide cosmetics labelling system which would mark out some products as off-limits to mothers-to-be.

The move follows the publication of a study which found that women exposed to high levels of hairspray during pregnancy were twice as likely to have babies born with hypospadias, a condition in which the urinary tract grows on the underside of the penis. The Imperial College London study suggested that the birth defects were linked to chemicals in hairspray shown to disrupt the hormonal systems in the body and affect reproductive development.

Fears over the effects of chemicals such as parabens, commonly used in cosmetics as a preservative, and phthalates, used in hairspray, have led to calls for closer monitoring of cosmetics. High levels of phthalates, also used to soften plastics such as PVC, have been found to affect hormone levels, while parabens have been the subject of concern since 2004, when a study claimed to have detected parabens from deodorants in cancerous breast tissue.

The French health minister Roselyne Bachelot sparked debate last week by announcing that the French health authorities were considering a labelling system for cosmetics that would indicate whether or not products were safe for pregnant women. But the UK government said that the EU should address the issue as a whole, adding it to a range of changes currently being made to the European Cosmetics Directive.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) said: "BERR does not think this is something which is suitable for individual countries to take forward unilaterally and hope that the French raise this during the current negotiations on the revision of the cosmetics directive, where a discussion can take place among experts on cosmetic products".

A 2007 study claimed British women absorb an average of 5lb of cosmetics a year through their skin and mouths.

Scientists last night backed a labelling scheme. "Labels enable people to make informed choices. In the vulnerable period of pregnancy, it makes sense for people to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals," said Professor Paul Elliott, who led the Imperial College study. "It is part of a broader discussion about minimising chemical exposure in early pregnancy."

The Royal College of General Practitioners is advising women to consider which products they use. "Women who are planning to conceive or who are in the first three months of pregnancy should look at what they are using," said Professor Steve Field, chairman of the RCGP. "The cosmetics industry needs to look at this and clearly label their products. Anything like this raises concerns," he added, "but I don't think people should panic."

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