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The group Teens for Safe Cosmetics created this fragrance called i made of essential oils. (Mathew Sumner/San Mateo County Times)
SAN FRANCISCO — Teenage girls gathered in the heart of San Francisco's shopping district Tuesday to protest the makeup of their makeup, urging regulators to follow Europe's lead and ban harmful chemicals from cosmetics.

The rally of about two dozen girls dressed in prom dresses and boots, plus the occasional boyfriend and a number of adults, was part product launch, part political campaign and part health education. It caps months of appearances by Teens for Safe Cosmetics at Bay Area stores, farmer's markets and high schools to alert consumers — particularly teens — to potentially carcinogenic ingredients in beauty products and advocate for their banishment.

Chief among their complaints: The European Union has declared 1,100 ingredients unfit for cosmetics, while the U.S. has banned just nine.

"Teens should be able to look their best in prom without worrying about the body burden of all these chemicals," said Jessica Assaf, who was one of the first to join Teens for Safe Cosmetics in 2005.

"This is about standing up to a billion-dollar industry and demanding change. We should not have to choose between beauty and our health."

But it's also about health, said director Judi Shils. "We hope it's a starting-off point. If people are mindful about what they put on their body, they'll be mindful about what they put in their body," she said.

At issue are carcinogens in cosmetics like coal tar, banned in Europe since 2004 but used here in shampoos to help dissolve scaly skin; solvents such as toulene to improve the gloss and adhesion of nail polish; plasticizers like phthalates to bind fragrances and prevent nail polish from chipping.


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There's also formaldehyde to disinfect creams and petrolatum to make lipstick shine. Both are banned in Europe.

All are used in tiny amounts. But the average American teen uses between 10 and 25 personal care products a day. Every day.

And over time, say those fighting for safer cosmetics, that can lead to a significant exposure — and potentially significant problems.

Manufacturers note many of these compounds are used in trace amounts. Data on the health effects are either incomplete or inconclusive, they say. And the chemicals create consistent, affordable products accessible to a broad swathe of the public.

The girls think they can do one better. And that was the final purpose of the Union Square rally: A launch of "i" — a line of personal care products created by teens, for teens.

The first is a perfume, "i," formulated by girls in Teens for Safe Cosmetics and sold by EO, a small all-natural cosmetics company in Corte Madera.

EO co-founder Susan Griffin-Black set out 50 essential oils in front of the girls, gave them some basics about mixing scents, and let them go.

The result is sweeter than something she'd create, Griffin-Black said. But its reception among teens is universal.

One-third of an ounce of the perfume, made solely from essential oils, sells for $26 and soon will be available online or at Whole Foods.

The whole experience — lobbying in Sacramento for Migden's bill, creating the perfume, rallying in Union Square — has changed their lives, many girls said Tuesday.

"On so many eco-issues you don't really feel like you could affect change — like global warming," Assaf said. "This affects you at such a deep level ... you could go home and immediately make a difference."

And it's not just teens.

Heidi Harris and Lana Karhu of Santa Rosa were strolling through Union Square Tuesday evening when they stumbled upon the rally. They have two daughters, one 18 years old, one 13. The younger daughter spent a weekend sleepover with three friends, applying makeup and having a blast.

Harris and Karhu left with a bunch of information and some samples.

"They're trying all these things on right now," Karhu said. "They're setting patterns that are going to fit for a life."

For more information about the safe cosmetics campaign, visit the Teens for Safe Cosmetics' Web site at http://www.teens4sc.org.

Contact reporter Douglas Fischer at dfischer@angnewspapers.com or at (510) 208-6425.