How Chemicals Used in Beauty Products May Be About to Change

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Are these products going to get safer? (iStock/Yahoo Beauty)

If your assumption is that some governmental regulatory body deemed your favorite lipstick and moisturizer safe to use, you are sadly mistaken — but you’re not alone.

The majority of Americans, according to just-released survey results from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), believe that at least some of the chemicals used in personal care products have been cleared for safety by the government — when, in fact, there is barely any regulation of the $60 billion-a-year makeup and skin products industry. And the weak federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which is supposedly there to provide it, was last updated in 1938.

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“There are no other products so widely used that have such few safeguards,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Tuesday in a press call by EWG, during which she spoke about the bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act she co-sponsored with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to address the issue. Feinstein said that she got behind the bill (S. 1014) — introduced in last April and now awaiting hearings — after she learned about the EU’s “robust system” for banning more than 1,300 chemicals from personal-care products. The U.S., by comparison, has banned only 11 ingredients, including such poisons as mercury and chloroform.

So if you’re a consumer who cares about cosmetics safety, Feinstein said, “There’s a strong predilection to buy European products, and that’s wrong.”

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But American consumers seem largely unaware of the difference, according to the EWG telephone survey of 800 registered voters. It found that 67 percent believe at least some personal-care products have been government-approved as safe, while 37 percent think that most of the chemical ingredients have been cleared. And an overwhelming majority — 68 percent — wants government safety regulations for personal care products such as makeup, lotions, and toothpaste. Only 28 percent believe there are already too many government regulations. Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed believe the government should have recall power when a personal care product is found to contain a dangerous toxin, while 94 percent said a company should be required to notify the government if its product has injured consumers.

The proposed bill would require a company to report any known serious adverse health effects to the FDA within 15 days. It also gives the FDA the power to review five potentially risky product ingredients per year, and ban products based on its findings. The chemicals up for review during the first year would be the following: diazolidinyl urea (a preservative found in everything from lip balm to deodorant that may release formaldehyde, a carcinogen), lead acetate (a color additive found in hair dyes that’s been linked to neurological problems), formaldehyde/methylene glycol/methanediol (carcinogens used in hair straighteners, including Brazilian blowouts), propylparaben (a cosmetics preservative that’s been shown to disrupt endocrine systems), and quaternium-15 (a product preservative and known skin toxicant and allergen).

Though it remains to be seen how effective such new regulations would be — particularly since the FDA would simply be determining a “reasonable certainty of no harm” for each ingredient — pretty much anything would be an improvement. “Under current law, the FDA has virtually no power to know what’s in personal care products,” Scott Faber, EWG vice president for government affairs, noted in Tuesday’s call. “The FDA doesn’t even know where cosmetics are produced, because there’s no requirement for companies to tell them.”

And for years now, Feinstein said, there have been many men in Congress “who tend not to take this seriously.” With the advance of the bill, she said she hopes that will change.

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