Skin is the largest organ—but that doesn’t make it invincible. The products we slather onto our bodies (and the chemicals that come with them) can enter their way into the bloodstream, and some of them have been linked to serious conditions such as cancer, hormone disruption and severe allergies. And even though the beauty business sells $50 billion worth of products every year, it’s essentially dead last among major industries in the U.S. to regulate safety for its consumers. There now finally may be a new law that changes that.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein along with industry leaders are driving a bipartisan effort to give the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) more authority to ensure skin and beauty products are safe to use. Under the proposed law, the FDA would be able to test if chemicals in cosmetics are formulated at safe levels—and if not, they can force a recall. Currently, cosmetic companies don’t have to share safety information with the FDA nor does the FDA require tests to demonstrate the safety of ingredients.
This legislation has support from some big players, such as the Personal Care Product Council, the industry’s leading trade association, who told CBS News they’ve already been working with Congress for increased regulation. But this certainly doesn’t mean the industry “Davids” haven’t also been fighting. Take Gregg Renfrew, founder and CEO of Beautycounter, a high-performance skincare and makeup line that implements self-imposed safety guidelines for their products. On Tuesday, she took a stand in Congress to urge key senators for cosmetic reform. “We have not passed a federal law regulating cosmetics since 1938. The law that does exist is a one-and-a-half page law. It is flawed, it has many loopholes. It does not require companies to expose the ingredients they put into fragrance, and it doesn’t allow the FDA with the ability to take action,” Renfrew tells LivingHealthy.
In the last 50 to 60 years, over 85,000 chemicals have been introduced into commerce, and 80 to 90 percent of them have not been tested for safety on human health, according to Renfrew. And a note to the “green skeptics”: These laws will not attempt to ban all chemicals and leave us only with ingredients made from plants. “Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe and chemicals don’t necessarily mean that they’re bad for you,” says Renfrew. So it’s not about natural versus chemical—it’s about safety.
Why has it taken so long to bring this issue to the front steps of government? The answer is complex. Consumers have simply gotten accustomed to using mainstream beauty products because they perform well. Then there are the industry titans, including those who prioritize margins. “You [also] have people who believe that regulation will squash innovation, and there is lot of pressure on companies today to continue to […] disregard the scientific evidence that’s pointing to the fact that many of these chemicals are harmful to your health,” says Renfrew, who adds that not all big business is completely ignoring safety.
In 2014, Johnson & Johnson removed two controversial ingredients, formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, from their baby products after years of consumer pressure. (Formaldehyde is one of the biggest offenders along with propylparaben and lead acetate.) The juggernaut company stated they would continue to reevaluate and reformulate their products, including their more popular lines like Neutrogena. But still, that wasn’t enough impetus to result in health-protective laws. And since regulation has been virtually nonexistent thus far, companies have been taking it onto themselves to offer more consumer education.
One such group is the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit, non-partisan research organization that rates consumer products based on safety. EWG is one among many resources Renfrew utilizes to investigate the ingredients that she includes in—and bans from—Beautycounter products. She also draws upon the European Union, which has restricted over 1,300 ingredients (of which only 11 are banned in the United States) from all personal-care products, as well as other institutions like the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and American Academy of Pediatrics. “We’re certainly not waiting for legislation to pass,” Renfrew asserts.
Senator Feinstein says she expects the bill to pass due to the massive bipartisan and industry support. If it does, that would be a major victory for the beauty industry—but more importantly, for customers. “I just hope that my children don’t have to read labels on the products. I’m really hoping the next generation won’t be impacted the way that we are,” says Renfrew. Right now, it seems like that might be quite possible. Fingers crossed.
- CBS News: Dangerous chemicals in cosmetics spur action by lawmakers
- FDA: FDA Authority Over Cosmetics
- U.S. Government Electronic Code of Federal Regulations: Requirements for Specific Cosmetic Products
- Environmental Working Group
- The New York Times: Johnson & Johnson Takes First Step in Removal of Questionable Chemicals From Products