Congress has taken some steps to make cosmetics safer, but it’s far from enough to protect Americans from the dangerous chemicals in personal care products. Action Alert!
The facts speak for themselves. One study found that 45 percent of women who used makeup regularly had skin disease related to cosmetics. An Australian consumer protection agency found that cosmetics were responsible for a third of the complaints it received, causing skin infections, bacterial conjunctivitis, folliculitis, corneal ulcers, and anaphylactic shocks. In fact, cosmetics account for 10 percent of allergic reactions in the US. This is putting our children at risk. Surveys have found girls as young as age 11 are using makeup regularly. One quarter of boys and more than a third of girls aged 6-8 (!) use body spray, perfume, and/or cologne. Millions of Americans are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals in these products, and it is time to do something to protect against these exposures.
Congress has done something, but it’s not enough. Late last year when Congress approved a big spending package for 2023, we focused primarily on the fact that Sen. Dick Durbin’s anti-supplement policy was not included. But there was another (qualified) victory: Congress added provisions to the omnibus to improve the safety of cosmetics, something that ANH has been calling for. While it’s good that Congress has identified this as an issue and done something proactive, we need to push for more meaningful reform to ensure that the cosmetics we use are safe.
You can find an overview of the new laws that apply to cosmetics here. There are efforts to increase transparency regarding ingredients and better testing of talc for asbestos, for example. These are steps in the right direction, but they fall far short of meaningfully making cosmetics safer. These changes don’t ban talc, PFAS, or other dangerous ingredients from cosmetics. They simply require testing for talc, and direct federal agencies to study the issue of PFAS in cosmetics. Given the EPA’s troubling track record on addressing PFAS chemicals, we are not optimistic about a government study assessing PFAS in cosmetics.
Requiring testing of talc for asbestos contamination is an improvement since the FDA did not previously require this pre-market testing. It is already a violation of federal law for cosmetics to contain asbestos or other adulterants, yet we know this contamination occurs. Some talc suppliers screen voluntarily for asbestos but have adopted testing methodologies that would never detect the cancerous substance because they aren’t sensitive enough; whatever testing the Department of Health approves for detecting asbestos in talc, it won’t be 100 percent effective, meaning there will be products on the shelves that can make us, or our children, sick. It only takes one asbestos fiber getting lodged into the lungs to cause mesothelioma decades later. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. This is not something to be trifled with, yet the government seems content to roll the dice on Americans’ health by continuing to allow talc to be used in cosmetics.
(As an aside, cosmetic products are not the only source of talc exposure. Some nicotine gums also contain talc; in fact, talc is a common additive to many types of chewing gum.)
Talc isn’t the only toxic concern with makeup and personal care products. We’ve reported previously on the presence of PFAS in makeup and how diapers and menstrual pads tested positive for phthalates and volatile organic compounds. Studies have linked phthalates to decreases in “sex steroid and thyroid hormone levels, poor sperm quality, endometriosis, insulin resistance, obesity and possibly breast cancer.” We’ve noted that makeup is absorbed through the skin, and chemicals absorbed through the skin directly enter the bloodstream.
These chemicals are endangering the lives of our children. A 2011 study concluded that hair oil and perm use during childhood was associated with earlier menarche (the first occurrence of mensuration); this has been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer later in life. The 2011 study also found that African Americans were more likely to use hair products than other racial and ethnic groups, making them more likely to suffer these health impacts.
The US is far behind other industrialized countries in cosmetics safety. In a widely cited statistic, the European Union has banned or restricted more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics while the US has outlawed or restricted just 11. According to The Guardian:
It’s possible to find formaldehyde, a known carcinogen banned in EU-sold cosmetics, in US hair-straightening treatments and nail polish. Parabens, linked to reproductive problems, are ruled out in the EU but not the US, where they lurk in skin and hair products. Coal tar dyes can be found in Americans’ eyeshadow, years after they were banned in the EU and Canada.
Part of the problem is that the law governing cosmetics hasn’t been updated since 1938. Cosmetics do not need to be tested for safety before they go on the market. As a result, states are starting to step in. California and Maryland have passed laws prohibiting the intentional addition of 13 PFAS chemicals to cosmetics; other states have considered various measures to increase the safety and transparency of cosmetics containing PFAS chemicals. This is an indictment of our federal government and its failure to stand up for consumers.
In the last Congress, there were several bills ANH supported that would make cosmetics measurably safer. For example S.2047/HR 3990 would have banned toxic PFAS chemicals from being used in cosmetics; HR 5537 would have banned eleven of the most toxic chemicals used in cosmetics. Half measures and promises to study the issue are not going to cut it. We need to start banning the dangerous chemicals that lurk in our makeup.
Action Alert! Write to Congress and urge them to address cosmetic safety by banning talc and PFAS from cosmetics and taking steps to ensure all cosmetic ingredients are safe. Please send your message immediately.