Stopping Use of Chemicals in Personal Care Products

Sara Frost Azzam

Guest Columnist, The Wellesley Townsman

November 10, 2020

Since my article on personal care products appeared two weeks ago, many people have asked me if there is anything being done to stop cosmetics companies from using untested chemicals in our personal care products.  Ironically, that was to be the subject of my second article because there are steps that you, as a consumer and as a citizen, can take. 

Over 200 companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to make safe cosmetics.  By taking this step, these companies have agreed to use formulations for their products that meet the standards and deadlines set by the European Union Directive 76/768/EEC, so that their products are free of chemicals that are “known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects.”  In January 2003, the European Union amended its cosmetics legislation so that the use of chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects has been banned, so that now companies are required to remove such chemicals from their cosmetic and personal care products. In order for American companies to sell their personal care and cosmetic products in Europe, they, too, are required to remove these chemicals.  Since these products have been reformulated for the EU market, there is no reason why these reformulated items couldn’t be sold in the United States as well.

The European Union has far stricter standards governing the use of chemicals than the United States does simply because they follow something called the Precautionary Principle, a guideline that I have mentioned in previous columns.  The Precautionary Principle simply states that: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”   How this affects personal care products is that, in order for a chemical to be used in a product, it must have been determined to be safe before widespread use, not after.  The United States, however, follows the guidelines of the FDA, which read as follows: "The regulatory requirements governing the sale of cosmetics are not as stringent as those that apply to other FDA-regulated products. Manufacturers may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances, to market a product without a government review or approval." (from the FDA website). 

However, when one reviews the list of the 200 companies that have signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics pledge, familiar names do not really stand out.  If you shop at natural food stores, you may recognize a few names, like Kiss My Face, Burt’s Bees, and Dr. Bronner’s.  One name you will certainly recognize is the Body Shop, which has been a leader in the campaign for safer cosmetics products…indeed, that is part of their founder’s philosophy.  But you won’t find the usual Estee Lauder, Lancome, or Bliss on the list.  As a consumer and a citizen, one step you can take is to write to these companies and ask them to sign the pledge.  By doing so, they promise to use the EU formulations as well as to aggressively seek alternatives for all products they make that may not have been reformulated.  This past summer, the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project wrote a letter to the managers of the Filenes, Macy’s, and Lord and Taylor stores at the Natick Mall, urging them to contact their representatives from major cosmetics companies to ask them to “to make a commitment to health, product safety, and the planet by signing the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.”  To date, we have yet to hear back from these managers with any feedback, as we requested.   A more active campaign by concerned citizens may bring about in Massachusetts the same results as a campaign in California.  A recent law called the California Safe Cosmetics bill, signed into legislation in just this past September, became the nation's first state law on chemicals in cosmetics. Companies will now have to notify the state of California when they use chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects. It will come as no surprise that chemical and cosmetic industries both vigorously opposed the bill, mounting a major campaign to convince salon owners and stores that they would be put out of business if the new law passed.

As an interested citizen and consumer, here’s what you can do: