By Sophia Sidhu
Every day, Americans slather thousands of chemicals onto their bodies in the form of personal care products. Many of these compounds are associated with adverse neurological, carcinogenic, respiratory, reproductive, and endocrine health endpoints. Despite this, these chemicals and the cosmetic products they comprise remain largely unregulated by the United States government. Over one thousand ingredients, including formaldehyde and petroleum, are allowed in U.S. cosmetic formulations, but are banned or heavily restricted overseas. This has resulted in immense discrepancies between American products and foreign products, extending beyond cosmetics to food, drugs, and other chemical products (Grossman, 2014). As a student researcher on the Chemical Entanglements Project at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, I have been involved in the development and dissemination of the “Fragranced Products on the UCLA Campus” survey. Fragrance is an overarching term that represents mixtures that can contain any number of over 3,000 chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens, reproductive toxins, hormone disruptors, and allergens. As a result of a lack of regulatory oversight and loose regulations, regulators, as well as consumers, have no way of knowing which potentially harmful ingredients are contained in fragranced products on the market (Switalski, 2014). To move forward on implementing fragrance-free policy on the UCLA campus, as well as stricter regulation of cosmetic products in the U.S., it is beneficial to understand cosmetic regulations in other regions, such as Canada and the European Union, and how they compare to regulations in the United States.
Cosmetic Safety in Canada
Compared to the U.S., Canada requires far more stringent regulation of cosmetics, offering greater protection from potentially harmful chemical products. Canadian regulations stipulate more extensive restriction of chemicals in products, greater assessment of products before release on the market, and stricter labelling requirements. While the manufacturing of cosmetics is overseen by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S., in Canada it is regulated by Health Canada, the government agency responsible for national public health. Like the FDA, Health Canada monitors the production and distribution of cosmetic products (Bonilla, 2018). The manufacturing of cosmetics in Canada is regulated by laws that provide strict requirements related to the distribution and sale of cosmetic products, including stipulating certain ingredients and requirements for labeling. All cosmetic products in Canada must undergo a comprehensive risk assessment in order to determine the potential hazards to consumers (Bonilla, 2018). Health Canada also maintains an extensive list of chemicals such as formaldehyde, triclosan, selenium, and 1,4-dioxane, which are prohibited from use in cosmetic products sold in the country, yet are all allowed in U.S. products. Additionally, cosmetic manufacturers are prohibited, by law, from selling cosmetics and personal care products that are potentially hazardous to the health of Canadians, and labels must list all the ingredients in the product (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “International Laws”). This regulation was enacted to increase manufacturers’ disclosure to Canadian consumers, in order for them to more easily choose safe, non-toxic products (Bonilla, 2018).
Cosmetic Safety in the European Union
The European Union (EU), like Canada, has stricter and more protective cosmetic laws than the United States. A notable aspect of the EU’s chemicals management and environmental protection policies is the precautionary principle. According to the European Commission, this principle “aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-making.” This means that if there is considerable evidence or even uncertainty regarding whether a product is a threat to human or environmental health, protective action is to be taken. In other words, even though every ingredient banned or restricted by European Cosmetic regulation is not necessarily toxic, more information regarding each ingredient’s safety is required before the EU can allow for their use in products (Grossman, 2014). The EU’s cosmetic regulations, currently followed by 31 European countries, are based on three principles: safety of raw materials and ingredients, good manufacturing practices, and the monitoring of the cosmetic market (European Commission, “Legislation”). Unlike the U.S., the EU relies heavily on the reporting of undesirable effects. This means that a designated person has the obligation to call attention to serious impacts to national authorities, who then collect information from consumers, health professionals, and others. These authorities are required to share the information they gather with other EU countries (European Commission, “Legislation”). Through such mechanisms, the EU sets a high level of transparency for cosmetic products, restricts the presence of hazardous substances on the market, and prioritizes the safety of consumers.
The Need for Change in the U.S.
While governments in the EU and Canada have banned the use of over 1,300 ingredients in cosmetics, the U.S. has only banned 11 (Switalski, 2014). This leaves it up to consumers to fend for themselves and determine the safety of the products they use. Contrary to the EU’s precautionary principle, the U.S. prefers to restrict and ban ingredients in products only when there is sufficient scientific evidence to deem it necessary. Cosmetic safety laws in the U.S. have not been significantly updated since 1938 (Brady, 2017). Meanwhile, in the eighty years since, evolving research has consistently shown that several ingredients commonly used in the beauty industry are associated with adverse health effects. In the U.S., unless a cosmetic product contains an ingredient that is classified as a drug by the FDA, the product doesn’t need FDA approval (Brady, 2017). Although the FDA has some labelling requirements, companies can avoid listing the ingredients in their products by claiming that doing so would violate trade secrets. In addition, manufacturers are not required to report health complaints to the FDA and the agency must rely on direct reports from consumers to learn about adverse health effects associated with products (Entis, 2017). The Toxic Substances Control Act does grant the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate industrial chemicals not covered by other statutes. While this act provides the EPA with the authority to require reporting, testing, and chemical restrictions, the EPA’s ability to do so has fallen short of expectations due to limitations in the statue, shifting agency priorities, loose oversight by Congress, and challenges by the chemical industry that have limited the EPA’s authority (Vogel & Roberts, 2011).
As a result of these loose regulations, countless toxic chemicals that are banned overseas are permitted to be used as ingredients in cosmetic products in the United States. Formaldehyde, for instance, is a known carcinogen found in hair straightening treatments, nail polish, and eyelash glue throughout the United States. Cosmetics and straightening formulas which contain formaldehyde, such as the Brazilian blowout, have been recalled and restricted in the EU, Canada, Australia and even Brazil, but not in the U.S. (Becker, 2016). Even the 11 ingredients that are currently “banned” in the U.S., are only slightly restricted. Mercury, for example, is a poisonous heavy metal that can seriously impact the nervous system and can be stored in the kidneys, blood, brain, liver, and bones (Group, 2015). The Natural Resources Defense Council’s seafood fish guide has a recommended a maximum level of .5 ppm of mercury, while the FDA “restricts” mercury levels to 65 ppm in cosmetics (Dahl, 2015).
Through the comparison of U.S. cosmetic regulation with that of other countries, it is clear that our regulations must be modified to provide more progressive and active strategies for regulating the cosmetic industry and protecting consumers. By relying on self-regulation, the government allows companies to decide if their products are safe. This results in consumer exposure to a multitude of toxins on a daily basis. It should be the responsibility of the government to prioritize the safety of consumers by modernizing U.S. regulations and stipulating stricter regulation of chemical ingredients in products on the market. The safety of consumers outweighs the freedom of companies’ to use any chemicals they wish in products; our regulations, like that of other countries, should reflect this. Instead of requiring evidence of harm before pursuing regulatory action, the U.S. should employ the precautionary principle to circumvent potential health and environmental risks. Risk assessments should be performed on each beauty product before release, and the FDA should require a comprehensive list of ingredients on the label of each product. Additionally, the government should create a more clear-cut avenue for the submission of complaints to the FDA, such as the EU’s designation of a specific person to notify authorities of health impacts noted by consumers. Our cosmetic industry has remained largely unregulated for decades, but through learning from regulation in other countries, the U.S. can better protect consumers and ensure that they are no longer in the dark about the toxic chemicals they are exposed to on a daily basis. In a similar regard, by understanding the experiences and concerns of students through the “Fragranced Products on the UCLA Campus” survey, UCLA can begin to implement comparable regulations to create a safer and more productive environment for all.
Sophia Sidhu is a UCLA Undergraduate Student in Human Biology and Society, Medicine, and Public Health. She was a member of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Research Group in 2017-2018, and was awarded the UCLA Library Undergraduate Research Prize for Best Digital Project for her timeline on the History of Synthetic Detergents.
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