Youth Clinic Spreads the Word on Potentially Harmful Cosmetic Chemicals

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According to Joi Jackson-Morgan, when 3rd Street Youth Center clients discovered the health risks associated with beauty products by looking at the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep Cosmetics Database, they were shocked.  Bayview-based 3rd Street—which provides health services, fitness, cooking and art classes, among other programming, to 12 to 24 year-olds—decided to introduce the SkinDeep database to the its Youth Action Board following publication of a University of California, Berkeley study showing that levels of four potentially hormone-disrupting chemicals were reduced in the systems of 100 girls who stopped using certain cosmetics.

The SkinDeep database offers numerical ratings of cosmetics based on their ingredients’ safety, one being safest and 10 being least safe.  “Beyonce’s ‘Heat’ had a 10. Rihanna’s, I think hers was like a nine, and that’s what is marketed toward them,” said Jackson-Morgan, 3rd Street’s deputy director.  Rihanna’s “Reb’l fleur” actually scores a 10 on SkinDeep.

Jackson-Morgan was referring to perfumes that contain an ambiguous ingredient on their labels called “fragrance,” defined by EWG as “an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants, such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.” The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, doesn’t require companies to disclose what makes up an ingredient identified as “fragrance.”

The UC Berkeley study, conducted in conjunction with Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, and released in March, found that when the teens stopped using products that contained four chemicals—phthalates, parabens, triclosan, and oxybenzone (BP-3)—the presence of those substances in their bodies decreased by 27 to 45 percent. 

Phthalates are often found as part of that ‘fragrance’ ingredient listed on perfumes and nail polish. “Phthalates are a great example because they have this property where they can interfere with the production of testosterone,” said Dr. Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and a professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. “Exposure to phthalates can lead to reduced testosterone levels. That’s been shown in the animal studies.”

Reduced testosterone levels, Woodruff explained, can lead to a host of health problems. “Lots of these hormones are important because they orchestrate different parts of development,” she said. “During the prenatal period, for example, you get this surge in testosterone because that’s what makes the male reproductive developmental form…So if you don’t have enough testosterone, you basically don’t get complete formation of the male reproductive tract.”

According to Woodruff, studies show that another of the chemicals, triclosan, can impede thyroid hormone levels. A decrease in thyroid hormone levels has been shown to affect brain development during the prenatal period; one study has linked a reduction in thyroid hormones in mothers to a lower IQ in offspring. Woodruff said there are fewer reports on parabens and oxybenzone, but culture dish studies suggest that they could interfere with estrogen production.

According to Ynessa Flores, who attends 3rd Street’s weekly seminar for young mothers called Young Moms, the risk of exposure to potentially harmful chemicals is news to her.  “I didn’t know that,” she said. “And it’s kind of worrying, because sometimes I let my daughter play with [my makeup]  Yeah, I think they should [be required to label cosmetics with this information.] Even stuff as simple as when they test it on animals and stuff. I see that on bottles, and I guess that’s something I kind of look for, but especially for hormonal stuff.”

Jackson-Morgan said that after getting such a positive reaction from the Youth Action Board, 3rd Street will likely demonstrate the SkinDeep database to other youth groups. The database can be accessed through EWG’s mobile application, which is available for iPhones and Androids, in addition to its online site..

3rd Street is one of  a handful of health centers geared specifically toward Southside youth. Others include the Balboa Teen Health Center in Balboa Park, the wellness center at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in Portola, Hawkins Village Teen Health Center in Visitacion Valley, Hip Hop to Health Clinic in Ocean View and UCSF’s New Generation Health Center, also known as “NewGen,” NewGen will close this summer due to “financial unsustainability,” according to a UCSF statement. 

“As New Generation closes, the network of youth-serving clinics in the Department of Public Health and its partners are ready and eager to provide these young people with high-quality, youth-friendly care,” said Ayanna Bennett, MD, interim medical director of Community Health Programs for Youth for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “We want to be sure young people know that they are welcome in clinics all over the City and that they do have access to the care they need.”

3rd Street already serves many young Potrero Hill residents, but Jackson-Morgan is worried that with no other youth-specific clinics in the immediate area, New Generation’s closure will leave some of its patients without access to health care services. “We’ve been on the forefront fighting for NewGen, being that it’s going to create a huge disparity in the community and there hasn’t even been a community assessment done,” Jackson-Morgan said. “We literally moved a few blocks from here and had to start our outreach six months ahead of time and it still took a year for us to get our old patients back, so for them to think that youth are going to be able to look at a list and pick out a physician is unreasonable.”

School health workers have also opposed the closure.  According to Jody Tsapis, the wellness coordinator at Downtown High School, on Vermont Street, for her students NewGen is the “go-to clinic for sexual health and sensitive services. Right before they announced the closure, Tino Ratliff [NewGen’s outreach and education coordinator] had presented birth control/pregnancy prevention and STD education workshops to our entire school, class by class. After the presentations, our Wellness Center saw a clear uptick in students asking for appointments at New Gen…Other clinics may be able to provide similar services, but it is their approach to this population that creates trust and support to youth who need it the most.”

At least two young patients of New Generation hadn’t heard of the clinic’s impending demise.  One of them, Pheona Gaynor, has been going to NewGen since she was referred there for reproductive care by the health center at John O’Connell High School when she was 16. “I’m disappointed, I didn’t even know that. You just told me. I came here a few weeks ago, and my doctor, favorite person there, she didn’t even mention it,” Gaynor said. “I do go to UCSF, but this one was always convenient for me. It’s going to be really weird because I’m going to have to make an appointment and it’s going to be a hassle.”

According to Woodruff, when it comes to buying safe products in today’s regulatory environment, consumers have to look out for themselves. “People have to be empowered to make the best choices they can make, but they also need to be able to tell the government so that they control the sources before people go to the store and try and sort through all these labels,” she said. “But really, you should be able to go to the store and buy products and not have to worry about whether they are safe or not, right? I mean it sounds so illogical when I say it, but yet that’s the way it is right now.”