Lead, arsenic, cadmium, formaldehyde, mercury. These are some of the toxic ingredients that are found in products that we put on our skin, in our hair, and on our lips that ultimately make it into our bodies where they can wreak havoc with endocrine systems, neural development, reproductive systems and contribute to higher levels of cancer.
These ingredients are unreported and hard to track, even for the most scrupulous consumer. Annie Leonard, who produced The Story of Cosmetics in partnership with The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics said it best: “It turns out the important decisions don’t happen when I choose to take a product off the shelf. They happen when companies and governments decide what should be put on the shelves.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees regulations governing cosmetics. However, regulation is a term used loosely, as manufacturers can use nearly every chemical and ingredient, man-made or natural, in a cosmetic without approval from the FDA.1
What is considered a cosmetic?
According to the FDA,2 the following types of products are seen as cosmetics: skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup preparations, shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, toothpastes, and deodorants.
As is the case with many other toxic chemicals (BPA laws, cadmium laws, flame retardants and others) regulation is beginning with the states. While an overhaul of the federal regulations overseeing cosmetics would have to pass through the United States Congress, dodge strong-arming tactics of industry lobbyists, and make it through regulatory translation, a state law or regulation can be implemented within a relatively short period of time, and quickly start protecting residents.
Late last year, the FDA published the results of an analysis of hundreds of lipsticks, which found measurable amounts of lead in 400 different lipsticks. Lead is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxic metal, which means that it builds up in our systems and does not break down. It’s been associated with neurological effects like seizures and impaired concentration, and with reproductive effects such as miscarriages and reduced sperm count, and is a developmental neurotoxin which may cause significant issues for children.
“Lead is a proven neurotoxin that can cause learning, language and behavioral problems such as lowered IQ, reduced school performance and increased aggression. Pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, because lead easily crosses the placenta and enters the fetal brain where it can interfere with normal development,” according to Sean Palfrey, MD, a professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University and the medical director of Boston’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.3
As is the case with many cosmetics products, consumers wishing to avoid lead in lipstick would be hard-pressed to do so without eschewing lipstick altogether. “The truth of the matter is a majority of lipsticks on the market, especially those with color additives, will contain some amount of lead,” writes Sheila Viswanathan of the GoodGuide’s science team.4 It gets into lipstick via source materials that contain lead. But there are widely varying amounts of lead, and it’s clear that best practices could minimize the amount of lead contamination in lipstick significantly.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, arguing that there is no safe level for lead for children and pregnant women, has sent a letter (pdf) to the FDA requesting the lowest possible limits for lead in lipstick.
When Molly Scrutton, a hair stylist in Oregon, started experiencing respiratory and other health issues in 2010, she began to look into the Brazilian Blowout product, a heat-activated straightening chemical used in salons. Scrutton had the product tested and researchers found high levels of formaldehyde in the product, which is an extreme irritant to the eyes, nose and throat.
Two years after the initial findings, the manufacturers of Brazilian Blowout agreed to put a warning on the product about the hazards of formaldehyde and the need to use the product in a well-ventilated area.5 However, this only came after California and Oregon took legal action against the company.
Similarly, nail polishes and hardeners contain several toxic chemicals, called the “toxic trio,” which present a problem less for women who use them once every couple of weeks, and more for salon workers who are exposed to the chemicals on a daily basis. The toxic trio is a group of three toxic chemicals that are often found in nail products: formaldehyde, toluene which is associated with negative effects to the central nervous system,6 and dibutyl phthalate which is associated with endocrine system disruption. Nail salon workers are often young immigrant women, and studies have shown that they have a greater prevalence of respiratory, skin problems and headaches when compared with the general population.7
After consumer group pressure, some companies have agreed to remove this toxic trio of chemicals from their products in the past few years. And the state of New York is working to make their removal mandatory with a proposed law, AB 1473, which would prohibit the manufacture, distribution and sale of nail polish and nail hardener containing any of the toxic trio. The law is currently in committee.
Toxic chemical laws around the United States, federal and state laws, need to be in place that can flex and bend to keep chemicals out of our lives.
“Currently, it is nearly impossible to identify the presence of carcinogens, reproductive or developmental toxins on a product’s label because companies are not required to list them. So, even if women are armed with knowledge about the potential presence of toxic chemicals, there is virtually no way for them to make informed decisions about the products they buy.”
- Michelle Noehren, founder of Connecticut Working Moms.
Bills are being proposed in statehouses throughout the country to keep toxic products from getting into consumer products using a process of identifying priority chemicals and encouraging businesses (through incentives or rules) to choose safer alternatives. Connecticut’s Senate Bill 274 would address a strategy for getting the worst-of-the-worst chemicals out of children’s products. In its current iteration, SB 274 would cover products such as cosmetics intended for children under 12 years of age, phasing toxic chemicals out of children’s shampoos, lotions, soaps and toothpastes.
Oregon entertained a bill this legislative session which could have an affect on toxic chemicals in cosmetics. House Bill 4151 would require that products purchased by state agencies be submitted with a transparent list of ingredients and chemicals of concern, and that purchasing decisions factor in this list.8 All other things being equal, the state agencies would, under this bill, be required to choose a product that is safer for human health and the environment over one containing chemicals of concern. Like the proposed Connecticut law, Oregon’s would begin to set into place a new way of thinking about chemicals of concern, and would provide the legal backup for safer products to be used in lieu of unsafe ones.
This will prove to be a big year for makers of children’s personal care products, as well as parents and policymakers in Washington State. Beginning August 2012, manufacturers of personal care products, including cosmetics, intended for children will be required to disclose whether products contain any of the 66 chemicals that have been identified by the state9 as a concern for children’s health. These chemicals of concern include chemicals used in cosmetics like formaldehyde, parabens, and 1,4 dioxane.
The new requirements are the result of Washington State’s Children’s Safe Products Act, which passed in 2008. Advocates and policymakers hope the information on chemical in personal care products will not only help parents make better decisions about what products to use, but also inform policymakers of where problem chemicals are showing up in products so they can implement policies to tackle the problem.
It is easy to feel defeatist about toxic chemicals in cosmetics. They’re so pervasive that it seems maybe it is impossible to get them out of chemicals. But the European Union (EU) is doing an admirable job of protecting citizens in all 25 EU countries from the worst-of-the-worst chemicals in cosmetics. As of January 2003, 1100 chemicals are banned from cosmetics (vs. the United States’ ban of 11 chemicals), proving that it is possible to set rules that cosmetics companies have to follow. Many companies are reformulating their product for EU acceptance, but still selling toxic-laden products in countries like the US that allow it.
The best-case scenario for strong cosmetics reform in the United States would be strong action on the federal level, with a standard plan across industries to identify the worst-of-the-worst chemicals and create an efficient strategy for getting them out of our lives quickly. However, as is the case with many chemical laws in this country, the states can take the lead on reforming the cosmetics industry on a state-by-state level until that can happen. Sometimes it takes state reform to prove to the federal branches that change is possible and imperative.
Look to the rest of the states to begin to join with Connecticut, New York, Washington and Oregon to demand change from cosmetic manufacturers, and protect consumers from the rampant use of toxic chemicals in cosmetics.
1 Ingredients prohibited & restricted by FDA regulations. http://www.FDA.gov, May 30, 2000. 2 Cosmetics Q&A: “Personal care products”. http://www.FDA.gov, December 14, 2011. 3 Lead In lipstick. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. 4 What Science Makes the Cut. The Good Guide, February 10, 2012. 5 Brazilian Blowout agrees to post formaldehyde warning. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, January 31, 2012. 6 Toluene fact page. http://www.FDA.gov. 7 At Some Nail Salons, Feeling Pretty and Green. The New York Times, November 10, 2010. 8 Fostering green chemistry innovation through healthy state purchasing: Policy concept. Oregon Environmental Council. 9 The Reporting list of chemicals of high concern to children. Washington State Department of Ecology.