Cracking Down on Toxic Makeup

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Let’s put this out there first: I do not know much about cosmetics. I have deodorant and shaving cream and—because I burn in the sun faster than Robert Pattinson in Twilight—lots and lots of sunblock. The average American uses 10 personal care products a day, and I am sub-average.

But I do know that government regulation of cosmetics and other personal care products is badly lacking. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may regulate foods and drugs relatively well—with some exceptions—but the agency can’t require cosmetics companies to conduct safety assessments, control the labeling of products or force product recalls. Just a fifth of the chemicals in cosmetics have actually been assessed by the FDA’s safety panel. As it is for industrial chemicals—as I wrote in TIME this past April—regulation tends to be in name alone, with the cosmetics industry effectively self-policing. And if you think industry can police itself—well, there’s a spillcam I’d like to show you.

And the chemicals inside many cosmetics—shampoos, moiturizers, lipstick and more—are worth worrying about. Carcinogens like formaldehyde, neurotoxins like lead, endocrine disrupters like phthalates—they’re often found, even in just trace amounts, in cosmetics and personal care items. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune in May found that some skin-whitening creams had dangerous levels of mercury, enough to cause kidney damage.  I could go on—but Annie Leonard—the author of the book The Story of Stuff and its accompanying film—has made a short web video that tells the tale with much more punch than I could manage. (Especially at 5 PM.) It’s the Story of Cosmetics:


Alarming stuff—enough to make you want to ditch the eyeshadow and just go natural. But as Leonard points out, real change needs to come not just from the consumer, or even industry, but in the laws that govern cosmetic and chemical regulation. And there’s some positive news from Washington: today Representatives Jan Schakowsky, Ed Markey and Tammy Baldwin introduced the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010. The legislation aims to phase out cosmetic ingredients linked to cancer and developmental harm, improve protection for children and other vulnerable populations and close labeling loopholes that allow companies to classify any number of chemicals under innocuous terms like “fragrances.” Here’s what Schakowsky said in a statement:

Harmful chemicals have no place in the products we put on our bodies or on our children’s bodies. Our cosmetics laws are woefully out of date—manufacturers aren’t even required to disclose all their ingredients on labels, leaving Americans unknowingly exposed to harmful mystery ingredients. This bill will finally protect those consumers.

Passing the bill won’t easy—the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group for the industry, argues that the legislation would place impossible burdens on the FDA, and that it’s “not based on credible and established scientific principles.” (Meaning theirs.) But at the very least the industry does seem to recognize that it has a problem, and is open to strengthening regulation at the FDA level, which is a start.

The truth is that the industry needs stronger regulations as much as the consumer. The science connecting chemicals found in many personal care products to health problems is early and often far from conclusive—but the vague labels and lack of transparency from the FDA is already eroding consumer confidence and trust. You can, if you try very hard, shop your way out of the problem and only buy organic or chemical-free cosmetics. (And if you want to do that, check out the new book No More Dirty Looks, which can help you look good and green.) But most consumers just want to be able to buy products at the drug store and have faith that someone—someone not making a profit on it—is ensuring they’re safe. That doesn’t seem to much to ask.