Most people assume beauty and personal care products are tested for safety before they land on store shelves. That assumption could not be farther from the truth. Companies can and do legally use chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm in the cosmetic products we use every day. A shocking number of dangerous chemicals hide in personal care products and cosmetics under the word “fragrance” on product labels.
The federal law that regulates cosmetics hasn’t been updated since it passed in 1932. It is so weak it doesn’t even require cosmetics to be tested for safety before being sold and there is no review or approval process for products or their ingredients.
This lack of oversight has led to chemicals being used in cosmetics in this country even though some have been banned in the European Union and other countries. These chemicals include:
- PFAS: Washington has banned these so called “forever chemicals” from firefighting foam and food packaging but PFAS can still be used in cosmetics including mascara, lipstick, and foundation. A recent study found PFAS in mascara, foundations, and lip treatments.
- Phthalates: These plasticizers are often found in fragrance but have been linked to reproductive harm and cancer. Washington has banned the use of phthalates in toys and other children’s products.
- Hydroquinone: Often used in skin lightening treatments, products heavily marketed towards women of color. It is linked to skin and lung damage.
- Coal Tar: Found in hair dye, shampoo, and lotions, this ingredient is a known carcinogen derived from coal.
- Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing agents: Found in nail products, hair products, and even soap, formaldehyde is commonly released from preservatives. It is a known carcinogen and skin irritant. Salon workers are especially at risk to formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) due to daily exposure. Even the head of the FDA’s industry-funded review panel concludes that products with formaldehyde should be banned.
Cosmetics in us and our water
Cosmetics don’t just stay on our skin. The skin is the largest organ on the body and absorbs many chemicals that are applied to it. In some cases, cosmetics release volatile chemicals that we can then inhale. And when personal care products used on lips contain toxics, it is easy to ingest them.
Toxic ingredients in cosmetics can also be washed off and end up contaminating water. A recent review of cosmetic contamination in drinking and surface water stated, “The hazard of the continuous release of these huge amounts of chemicals into waters should not be underestimated.”
Communities of Color Unjustly Impacted
Communities of color are at a greater risk to be disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, their communities, and from cosmetics. Products like skin lighteners (containing hydroquinone), hair relaxers ( containing formaldehyde), and acrylic nails (containing phthalates, methacrylate compounds and formaldehyde) are often marketed to or applied to customers by women of color, and contain some of the most worrisome ingredients in cosmetics.
Governments and Companies Taking Action
Big box stores like Target and Walmart and pharmacy chains, including CVS Health, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, and online retailers such as Amazon have targeted dozens, and in some cases hundreds of hazardous chemicals for reduction and elimination. These include PFAS, hormone-disrupting phthalates, cancer-causing formaldehyde, and hormone-disrupting parabens.
The Solution: The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act
SB 5703/HB1853, the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, sponsored by Senator Mona Das (D-Kent) and Representative Bateman (D-Olympia) bans some of the most concerning chemicals used in cosmetic products, including PFAS, phthalates, and formaldehyde. The bans would go into effect in 2025.
The bill also requires the Departments of Ecology and Health to create a community engagement plan by December 1, 2022. This plan would:
- Test cosmetic products marketed to women of color and identify potentially harmful ingredients;
- Seek information through outreach and provide culturally appropriate education concerning identified harmful ingredients used in cultural and other cosmetic products, prioritizing engagement with vulnerable populations; and
- Obtain recommendations for priority chemicals or products to be regulated under the Safer Products for Washington program.
This bill, if enacted into law, would play an important part in making cosmetics and personal care products safer and drive transformation of global supply chains. What’s more, it begins to address environmental justice concerns, as harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products disproportionately impact women of color.
Read more about SB 5703.