by Pat Battaglia
Humans are infinitely creative. We build our homes and create our communities, surrounding ourselves with the things necessary for our survival along with creature comforts. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, to the products we use for home and garden maintenance, to the cars we drive, to our electronic devices, to the personal care items we use on a daily basis, people have devised often ingenious ways to overcome obstacles large and small as we go about our daily lives.
However, our ingenuity has sometimes had unintended consequences. Many common household and personal care/cosmetic products contain chemicals that have been found to negatively impact human health. Some have been associated with increased cancer risks. Many have not been adequately tested for safety, and their effects are unknown.
In the area of personal care items and cosmetics, we come into direct contact daily with products designed to cleanse, moisturize, condition, deodorize, perfume, minimize flaws, enhance our features, add color, and more. According to the Environmental Working Group, women use an average number of twelve personal care products every day, exposing them to approximately 168 different chemical ingredients. Men use about half that amount, exposing them to about 85 chemicals.(1)
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Safety Act, which was enacted in 1938, has remained virtually unchanged since that time. This legislation includes provisions designed to ensure the safety of personal care products. However, the archaic nature of this set of laws leaves these products largely unregulated. Although the FDA has oversight of personal care and cosmetic items, the agency has little regulatory authority aside from requiring product labels to list ingredients. Safety testing for these ingredients is not required. While the manufacturers of food, drugs and medical devices must register with the FDA and report adverse events, producers of personal care items do not have to register or report any information about their products.(1)
The inadequate nature of laws regulating ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products allows for the inclusion of known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and other chemicals of concern without legal consequences. Some of these chemicals, such as formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, are frequently included in personal care products, while others are less common but still used.(2) And the nearly ubiquitous presence of fragrance in cosmetics has raised some singularly complex concerns.
Some Unfragrant Facts
When the word “fragrance” appears on an ingredient label, it can mean any one of the thousands of proprietary blends currently used in over 95% of cosmetics and personal care products marketed in the U.S.. Individual fragrances are blended from a palette of approximately 4,000 chemicals, which are combined in varying amounts. Each blend contains between 50 and 250 ingredients.(3) According to the Environmental Working Group, there is a fair amount of data supporting concerns that certain fragrance ingredients can contribute to cancer, cause reproductive harm, and trigger allergic reactions.(4) There are currently no federal or state mandates for manufacturers to disclose fragrance ingredients on product labels.
Sometimes natural fragrance is listed as an ingredient on labels. Since there is no consistent, widely-accepted definition of the word “natural”, it cannot be assumed these are safe alternatives. Included in the category of natural fragrances are essential oils, which are extracted from a wide range of plants and have been associated with myriad health effects. While many of these oils have been shown to be beneficial,(1) others have raised red flags. Lavender and tea tree oils, for example, have demonstrated hormonal activity and could potentially contribute to endocrine disruption. However, diluting these oils reduced these effects, prompting the suggestion that if you choose to use pure essential oils, mix them with a neutral oil first.(5)
Change is in the Air
In an effort to update antiquated laws, four new bills have been introduced in Congress to help make beauty and personal care products safer. Known collectively as The Safer Beauty Bill Package, this legislation includes:
The Toxic-Free Beauty Act of 2021, which would prohibit the use of eleven hazardous chemicals from beauty and personal care products sold in the U.S. These substances are already banned in the European Union, California, and Maryland. The bill would also ban the use of the entire class of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This family of chemicals includes thousands of nonstick, stain-repellent, and waterproof compounds, some of which have been linked to serious health effects including cancer. These incredibly persistent chemicals (i.e., they do not break down in the environment) are sometimes used in makeup, sunscreen, shampoo, and shaving cream.(1)
The Cosmetic Supply Chain Transparency Act of 2021 would require upstream suppliers of cosmetic ingredients to provide brand owners with the information needed to make safer beauty and personal care products, including ingredient disclosure, toxicity and safety data, and the certificates of analysis. Currently, no federal law requires any transparency between different entities in the cosmetic industry supply chain.
The Cosmetic Safety for Communities of Color and Professional Salon Workers Act of 2021 would create a specific set of cosmetic safety measures for women of color, professional hairstylists, and workers in nail and beauty salons. These populations bear a disproportionate burden of toxic exposures because of where they work, the products they work with, and/or the products commonly marketed to them.
The Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act of 2021 would require companies selling beauty or personal care products to publicly disclose the presence of fragrance and flavor ingredients. Some of these substances have been linked to negative health impacts ranging from allergic reactions to reproductive harm to increased risk of breast cancer.(3)
For more complete information on the Safer Beauty Bill Package, including links to the original legislation, visit the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners website: bcpp.org.
You Can Help
There is no end to the blame game, and those diagnosed with cancer are not at fault. Environmental exposures, while associated with increased cancer rates, are just one piece of a highly complex puzzle when it comes to carcinogenic processes. Still, there is power to be gained in controlling the factors that are ours to control. Seeking safer personal care and cosmetic products is one way to do this. Adding your voice to those advocating to update laws ensuring the safety of these products is another.
Write, call, or email your national representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives and ask them to support the Safer Beauty Bill Package. You can find their contact information here: usa.gov/elected-officials/.
Making Choices, Making Changes
Fortunately for consumers, there are a number of companies producing personal care products and cosmetics that meet much higher safety standards than required under current regulations. Informative databases exist that can be helpful in finding cosmetic products that are safe and effective. The following sources have been shared by members of our survivor community, who have found them to be informative and useful.
- Skin Deep, a searchable website and mobile app offered by the Environmental Working Group: ewg.org/skindeep
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, offered by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, includes a Red List of safecosmetics.org
- The California Safe Cosmetics Program Product Database is a searchable website that lists many (but not all) products available nationally: cscpsearch.cdph.ca.gov/search/publicsearch
While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, there is more contained in many beauty products than meets the eye. However, cosmetic and personal care items can contribute to an enjoyable quality of life while offering the reassurance of safety. Informed consumers and advocates are making individual decisions and adding their voices to measures that can make a big difference for everyone.