Ever since I stumbled upon the FDA recall of Jan Marini's eyelash conditioner - within hours of giving it a rave review based on my own three week trial - I've been somewhat rattled. After all, most of us don't invest hours of online searches into every potion and lotion we use. So how do we know what is in this stuff and whether it is safe?

So I was excited to come across safecosmetics.org (a reader also referred me to it). The site's Skin Deep directory with its listing of hundreds of dangerous ingredients will convince you, after a cursory tour of your bathroom cabinet, that you are harboring enough toxic matter to be a legitimate target for Greenpeace.

And that was what got me thinking.

The language used by safecosmetics.org is highly emotive. Still, it's heart is probably in the right place and the team there doubtless believe that this is what it takes to get noticed. Then I started to feel a little uneasy about the way they pitched things. The latest campaign right there on the home page is about lead in lipstick. Three things bother me about this:

1. The typically emotive language - "A poison kiss: product tests find lead in lipstick".

2. There is a picture of a cute little Chinese girl smearing lipstick over her mouth. Nothing in any of the research suggests that the offending lipsticks come from China, but it sure seems convenient to hop on the made in China and therefore it must be deadly bandwagon. The press release says: "Toys made in China aren’t the only products laced with dangerous heavy metals: lipstick manufactured in the United States and used daily by millions of American women also contains surprisingly high levels of lead".

3. There is no comment from the National Toxology Program, no peer-reviewed research, no independent toxicologist's comments, no regulations cited. The tests are based on the findings of an unnamed research lab.

The Safe Cosmetics Campaign began in 2002 with the release of a report, Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products and the FDA. However, a rummage through the FDA archives for the same year turned up a number of statements on phthalates including:

"It's not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on health. An expert panel convened from 1998 to 2000 by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), part of the National Institutes of Health, concluded that reproductive risks from exposure to phthalate esters were minimal to negligible in most cases.

In 2002, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reaffirmed its original conclusion (reached in 1985) that DBP, DMP, and DEP are safe as used in cosmetic products. The panel concluded that exposures to phthalates from cosmetics are low compared to levels that would cause adverse effects in animals. (The CIR is an industry-sponsored organization that reviews cosmetic ingredient safety and publishes its results in open, peer-reviewed literature.)"

The Safe Cosmetics Campaign is backed a Washington lobby group called the Environmental Working Group. Superficially, at least, its aims seem laudable enough (broadly, it is campaigning against toxins in agriculture and everyday products). However, there is a marked lack of empirical evidence behind its claims.

I am no apologist for the FDA and they need a watch dog. This one, sadly, has a bark that's worse than its bite. In the meantime, I have signed by for FDA alerts on recalls and will post any relevant when they come up.