nn Garrity is careful to say that there are many reasons that she feels better these days. Her job is less stressful; her diet is healthier. But she has also changed every product that she smoothes, pats or brushes onto her skin, after a doctor suggested that her health problems were linked to her cosmetics.

Persistent fibroids led her to an East Coast physician who urged her to throw out every lotion, soap and cosmetic she used "because I had too much estrogen in my system," Garrity said. The diagnosis was unexpected, "but I was feeling so bad, if she'd told me to bury a tin can and run around the house three times, I would have."

The products themselves didn't contain estrogen, but rather certain synthetic chemicals that can mimic estrogen in the body. Because her grandmother and mother both are breast cancer survivors, and because studies indicate that exposure to environmental, or artificial, estrogen increases cancer risk, she cleared out her shelves. "I just wanted to know that I'd done everything I could to reduce my exposure."

Her search for alternatives led her to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org), through which manufacturers pledge to phase out the use of chemicals linked to health problems and replace them with safer ingredients. This spring, that led Garrity to develop Organic Diva, an online resource on chemicals, cosmetics and health that also is a marketplace for companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.

Cosmetics not regulated

Garrity's learning curve rose like a well-arched eyebrow. First revelation: Ingredients in cosmetics needn't be reviewed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, the industry is regulated by the Personal Care Products Council (formerly the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association), the national trade association for the cosmetic and personal care products industry. Views differ on whether that's a case of giving the experts appropriate authority or akin to letting the fox guard the henhouse.

The council's stated mission is "to enable our members to continue to develop and sell the safe, quality and innovative cosmetic and personal care products that help consumers live better, healthier lives." It cites the relative scarcity of complaints about cosmetics as evidence that it is doing its job. Skeptics such as Garrity say that consequences such as cancer or birth defects develop over the course of years rather than the lifespan of a lipstick.

In the course of her research, Garrity found that the average U.S. woman uses at least nine cosmetic products each day; while any of them alone may be worry-free, consumers may not consider the cumulative exposure of multiple products.

From telling to selling

Garrity, 41, hadn't intended to turn her research into a business, but then her sister began raiding her makeup bag. "You know, you're sharing a glass of wine and it's like, 'I'm taking this lip gloss,'" she said, laughing. "Then a friend said, 'Look, I have two kids and I don't have time to read labels. Just tell me what to get.'"

So Garrity began offering a selection of products for sale through her website. She's wary of marketing terms such as "natural," "pure," "clean," "green" and "organic" because there are no standards for such adjectives. "If you have a vat of uranium and throw in an organic flower, you still have a vat of uranium," she said. "We really need to be thinking nontoxic."

Cheryl Kopka, 41, of Robbinsdale thought she was a safety-savvy consumer, buying products from a natural foods store. "But I got burned," she said, learning that words such as "pure" and "natural" may carry as much weight as a bath bead. "I'm a single mom raising kids -- raising daughters -- so I'm too busy to read labels every single day."

She slowly began integrating other products into their lives. One limitation is cost; many of these nontoxic products are more expensive to produce, and come from smaller companies. "But you can't put a price tag on peace of mind," she said. "And I do feel better, although maybe it's mental. It's totally about education and making the wiser choice."

Keeping it civil

Before Garrity will consider listing products, the manufacturers must meet four criteria: They have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics; they rate well on the Skin Deep Report developed by the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), they fully disclose their ingredient list, "and their stuff has to work."

Not everything does. "I don't think they've perfected mascara yet," she said. Color can be another challenge, as is consistency. A favorite sunscreen, for example, doesn't glide on effortlessly, but needs to be softened by rubbing it in your hands.

Her goal with Organic Diva (http:// organicdivas.com) is to offer a place where women "know that I've vetted the products for them." Friends test potential products; a dozen around the country now are trying out nail polishes. "It has to be what works for you," she said. "Some people will say, 'I will change lotions, but I will never give up my mascara,' and that's OK."

More than 600 companies have signed the compact. Garrity found that many are small companies where the owner had a health issue and was motivated to come up with product substitutes. In other words, you may never have heard of most of them.

It's worth noting that Garrity is careful not to bash a particular brand, nor demonize the big names in cosmetics for not signing the compact. "Ultimately, everyone has to work together to make things better, so you can't throw them under the bus."

If anything, she appreciates the marketing challenge if they improve a product. "It's hard for them to say, 'We're healthy now! -- even though you've been buying us for the last 10 years.'"

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185