UMass Lowell project uses high schoolers to study whether beauty products pose risk

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By MICHAEL LAFLEUR

LOWELL- Like most teens, Christa Garrity rarely gives a second thought to the eye liner and eye shadow she applies before she heads off to class at UMass Lowell each morning.

'I just put it on,' the 19-year-old from Danvers said.

Garrity and other teens have access to a mind-boggling array of hair dyes, shampoos, styling gels, home acne treatments, deodorants, makeup and other personal hygiene and beauty products.

But there is little data on just how much, how often or why the average teen uses them or even whether certain combinations of products can leave behind harmful chemical residues, according to University of Massachusetts Lowell researchers.

'We were curious, is there a health risk?' said UMass Lowell sociology professor Kristin Esterberg. 'No one has really done any research on it.'

Esterberg, the outgoing chairwoman of the Sociology Department who is the newly named associate provost, and nursing professor Susan Reece are the lead investigators on a team of professors in the early stages of trying to answer that question for Lowell teens.

The effort, dubbed the Beyond Your Body Project, involves faculty and staff from the psychology, computer-science and economics departments, as well as the college's Center for Family, Work and Community.

Last semester, team members, with help from UMass Lowell undergraduate and graduate students, conducted focus groups with about 30 Lowell High School teens 26 of them girls, mostly Southeast Asian or white ranging in age from 15 and 18, discussing the type and frequency of products they used.

College students also were paired with high-schoolers and sent into the city to digitally photograph beauty and hygiene products, including their ingredients.

All the teens who participated were given free movie tickets or a small stipend.

'We needed a way to ask kids what they're using,' Reece said. 'They have their finger on the pulse of what's going on. The faculty are a little bit more out to lunch with all this.'

If some members of the UMass Lowell faculty are curious about the possible health effects of using makeup and other beauty products during the teen years a time Reece terms a particularly critical period of physiological development it seems many teens are not.

Like Garrity, 17-year-old Jenna Hennesey of Lowell is attached to her daily regimen of eye shadow, eye liner, mascara and lip gloss.

'I won't leave home without it,' Hennesey said one day recently. 'It makes me feel better about myself. I think that I take care of my skin, basically. As long as you wash off your makeup before you go to sleep at night, it doesn't clog your pores.'

The idea behind the UMass Lowell study is to gather enough digital images and consumer information to craft an online survey that can be administered to local teens starting late this spring. The survey will gather data on the most commonly used products and how marketing affects decisions about their use.

'You don't want to do a paper-and-pencil survey with teenagers,' Reece said. 'We thought if we could make something that was sort of visually exciting and a little bit more fun to complete, they'd be more likely to do it.'

Once researchers have enough consumer data, they'll be able to scientifically test Hennesey's hypothesis about the benefits of a nightly face wash against the products many local teens report using.

University toxicologists will be called upon to analyze hair and urine samples, cataloging whether certain chemicals appear in teenagers' bodies as a result of their choice of beauty products, determining what is called 'body burden.'

'It's a huge unknown,' Reece said. 'Something may not be harmful if that's the only thing you use, but there may be a synergistic effect. You put five or 10 things together, and it ends up being a not-ideal situation. We don't know.'

All of that will take several years to complete.

If physiological testing uncovers potentially harmful side effects that can be traced to the use of certain products, Esterberg and the research team will search for alternatives to avoid such risks.

'If the teens are putting themselves at risk by using these products, we have to try to figure out what these things might mean to them and what some changes might be,' Esterberg said.