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Safety first is NOT the motto when it comes to cosmetics laws

Posted Apr. 23, 2012 / Posted by: Ian Illuminato

Have you ever used toothpaste? What about deodorant or makeup? Do you wear sunscreen when you go outside? If you’ve answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you may want to read on.

A few weeks ago the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee Health Subcommittee held a historic legislative hearing to examine cosmetics regulation -- the first gathering of its kind in 30 years! After all this time our government is now seriously discussing the issue of cosmetics regulation.

Despite the clear evidence of harmful chemicals in our cosmetics, we have yet to see any positive changes to our nation’s regulation of these products. It’s clear to most people that we need to amend the way we regulate cosmetics for the sake of public and environmental health. We’ve got carcinogens, mutagens, and even reproductive toxins ending up in this stuff and, well, we must do something about it. We’ve known for a long time that dangerous chemicals like mercury, lead, and formaldehyde end up in popular products such as lipstick and shampoo. While the Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged this fact, the agency is still administering cosmetics and personal care products by way of the seriously outdated 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. Why is that? I ask myself this question frequently and I can tell you that if you dig deep on the subject, you will learn of the complexity behind this situation -- the answer is not an easy one.

There are various forces at work. This situation is in part directly influenced by some of the big cosmetics companies that don’t want to be burdened with new rules. These companies just don’t want to change; they’d rather spend their money and influence on making sure they won’t have to change or clean up their act -- a characteristic all too common when it comes to big business getting its way with people and the planet.

Another force at work here are the people who think that many of the chemicals we fight to keep out of cosmetics and other products are just not that dangerous. Or that these chemicals in small doses won’t really ever hurt us. And then there are the people who sometimes unknowingly support this school of thought, we’ve all got a friend or family member out there who thinks that everything can cause cancer to some extent, so why bother and worry about all of this stuff, we can’t do anything about it anyways.

These are some of the forces that end up stalling laws meant to protect our health -- the ones truly at our service. The people who support these forces have a right to see the world through their own eyes and to express their opinions. However, I tend to think that we could all benefit (even cosmetics companies) if we made some changes that put our health first, including using fewer cosmetics and ensuring the ones we do use are free from unnecessarily harmful chemicals.

Sure, we may not all drop dead right now from chemicals in our cosmetics, but over time I know that if we don’t at least try to clean up this industry, we may never get to realize the potential to be free from these toxins, which so frequently enter our lives and affect our health in the long run. We have the option to lead the world towards healthier living by enacting legislation that gets rid of outdated and dangerous chemicals in our beauty products. If we choose to take action on this issue, we will witness a greater communal health -- one we may not even be able to fully imagine at the moment.

Thinking back to the hearing that recently took place, I really wish we would have quickly adopted new legislation to start to deal with these deficiencies in cosmetics regulation, yet no decisions were made and the potential for action has been placed on the shelf once more -- at least for now.

Friends of the Earth and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics helped get a new bill introduced last year called the Safe Cosmetics Act (H.R. 2359). A bill that would stop the $50 billion cosmetics industry from putting unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no monitoring of health effects and inadequate labeling requirements. The legislation would begin to make things right and get rid of cosmetic ingredients that cause cancer and reproductive harm. Nevertheless, the bill has been fought against boorishly and our government is now considering other legislative avenues, which are much weaker and could set us back even further.

When it comes down to it, if you rely on the FDA to ensure that what you buy in stores will not harm you, then I would suggest you consider an alternative source for keeping your health and safety in check. You may want to do your own research -- a great place to start is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetics database where you can find detailed information about thousands of cosmetics products. You can also check out the video below, produced by the Story of Stuff Project, which gives a great background on the problems with the regulation of cosmetics.

On a positive note, we are starting to see the truth about this issue really come to light. The hearing that took place in the Energy and Commerce Committee represents a step towards further exposing dirty cosmetics -- they won’t be able to hide out for long. We may still be waiting for legislative action, though I have a feeling as more and more people become aware of this situation and make demands to their legislators, we’ll hopefully get the change we need.

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