So you need a new mascara…
You run to the local drugstore or big cosmetics store or department store beauty counter. You look for the product that will work the best because, well, no one wants mascara flaked under her eyes by noon!
But most of us don’t ever consider the ingredients in our cosmetic products.
I for one always thought that if something was for sale, it must be safe. I mean, it wouldn’t otherwise be for sale… right?
Beauty and personal care products are a primary source of our chemical exposure.
On the average day, the average woman wears hundreds of chemicals. These chemicals are found in her face wash, face lotion, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, deodorant, perfume, mascara, eye shadow, foundation… and so the list goes on.
Remember: the skin is your body’s largest organ and absorbs almost all of what is applied on it (consider that fact that there are transdermal medications). Topically applied products go straight to your bloodstream, whereas ingested chemicals are filtered by the liver and kidneys. You also inhale these chemicals (especially with scented products) and eat them (as with lip and oral care products).
Many of these chemicals have been directly or indirectly linked to hormone disruption, DNA damage, and even cancer. Even more concerning, the majority of the chemicals in use have never even been studied. More concerning STILL is that companies are able to keep some chemicals a secret as trade secrets. So we may not even know everything that is actually in a product!
Some countries have taken action to reduce the threat of these chemicals. For example, the European Union has banned or restricted over 1,400 harmful chemicals from being used in skincare and cosmetics. In contrast, the United States has banned or restricted only 30.
How is this possible?
The fact is: the beauty industry is almost completely unregulated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is technically charged with overseeing cosmetics, fragrance, and personal care products, but its regulatory oversight is very limited:
- No product or ingredient requires FDA approval before going to market (with the sole exception being color additives). So if a company wants to use the cheapest ingredient even though it may cause reproductive harm…
- No product or ingredient requires safety testing. The FDA only “advises” manufacturers to test products and ingredients for safety before putting them on the market. So if a company doesn’t want to spend the money or manpower on product testing…
- The FDA cannot recall an unsafe product in the same way it can do so with unsafe food. Though it can “request” that a product be recalled, company selling the product must voluntarily issue the recall. So if a company doesn’t want to pull their product from the shelves and have a PR scandal (not to mention potential costly lawsuits) on their hands…
How is it possible that this government agency has such little control?
The FDA itself states:
“Cosmetic companies have a legal responsibility for the safety of their products and ingredients.”
That is, the legal responsibility is the hands of the companies, not the FDA.
An organization called the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) created and funds the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), which tests ingredients for safety and submits the data to the FDA on behalf of the cosmetic companies. The PCPC defines itself as:
“The leading national trade association for the cosmetic and personal care products industry… for more than 600 member companies, we are the voice on scientific, legal, regulatory, legislative and international issues for the personal care product industry. We are a leading and trusted source of information for and about the industry and a vocal advocate for consumer safety.”
But here’s the thing: The PCPC is basically operated by the beauty industry big-wigs. Its members include over 600 beauty companies (including the biggest names in the industry — multibillion-dollar businesses like Avon, L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Johnson and Johnson, and Procter & Gamle) and the largest chemical manufacturers who supply the ingredients. And it doesn’t take an advanced degree in economics to know that what (most) companies care about most is their bottom line. So what can we assume the PCPC is primarily concerned with? Public health and consumer safety? Certainly not… After all, it’s all about the Benjamins, baby (or so says Puff Daddy).
The FDA has even scolded the beauty industry leaders for putting profit above consumer safety.
In 2014, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor wrote a public letter to the PCPC and ICMAD (Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors, another trade group) reprimanding the groups for attempting to further limit the power of the FDA by calling for fewer regulations. Taylor expressed his “profound disappointment” in industry proposals that “would actually reduce FDA’s current ability to take action against dangerous cosmetics.”
According to the letter, these groups had proposed new legislation that would (the following is quoted verbatim from the actual letter):
- Have Congress declare a wide range of potentially harmful chemicals “safe” for use in cosmetics without a credible scientific basis, shifting the burden to FDA to prove them unsafe through a lengthy rulemaking;
- Require FDA to affirmatively find other cosmetic ingredients “safe” even if we knew that they posed real and substantial risks to consumers;
- Require FDA to undergo a lengthy, unnecessarily burdensome process before declaring an ingredient unsafe, delaying actions to protect consumers by removing unsafe chemicals from cosmetics;
- Virtually eliminate FDA’s ability to verify that cosmetic companies have substantiated the safety of their products;
- Undercut FDA’s ability to enforce quality control rules for the safe manufacturing of cosmetics;
- Prevent FDA from receiving reports of most illnesses and injuries from improperly manufactured or otherwise dangerous cosmetics, as well adding a provision that would severely undermine FDA’s ability to use the reporting system for its fundamental purpose: to detect signals of harm from cosmetics;
- Fail to give FDA the authority to require cosmetic companies to register annually with FDA, reducing the agency’s ability to know who is making cosmetic products for sale to our citizens and what those products are;
- And finally, having severely restricted FDA’s authority to keep unsafe cosmetics off the market, the industry draft would entirely eliminate States’ ability to oversee any aspect of the safety of cosmetics.
Clearly, we need to be educated consumers and protect ourselves.
This is why I started this blog — to help educate others — and am such a big fan of DIY skincare. After all, it’s easy to avoid unhealthy chemicals when you are making your own products!
But most people just aren’t DIYers, and even for those of us who are, there are just some things that we can’t make by hand.
Luckily, there are many resources now available to help you purchase safer products.
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database ranks cosmetic and skincare products by safety from 0 (virtually no hazard) to 10 (high hazard). They also have an app which is convenient to use when shopping.
Think Dirty is another similar app that helps you find safe skincare and beauty products.
My personal favorite natural beauty brands: