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America Is Sorely Behind In Cosmetics Safety

By Orven Mallari | Aug 11, 2020

pale woman putting on makeup

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A big part of clean beauty is ensuring that whatever we put in and on our bodies are free from harmful toxins. We often depend on regulations--here in the U.S., from the FDA--to dictate what can and cannot be put in our products. But what happens when these rules are relaxed to a dangerous extent? Comparing FDA regulations on cosmetics to those of international regulatory bodies (particularly in the European Union), it is clear that the U.S. is lacking the proper regulations to keep our cosmetics safe. While Grantas commits to having no toxic chemicals anywhere near or in our products, it is worrying to knowthat cosmetic companies often do get away with putting harmful stuff in their products. Out of the 1,300 chemicals banned or heavily regulated in the E.U., only 11 are recognized in the U.S. as harmful. 

The U.S. has historically been slow to adopt regulatory policies in the hopes of action being taken by companies; for example, lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978 but has been banned in the rest of the Western world since World War II. Today, however, some powerful lobbying influences have made it increasingly challenging for the EPA to put regulations on anything. For example, their lack of power was shown in 1991, when the ban on asbestos was overturned by manufacturing lobbyists.

The results of these lax rulings have had clear consequences on the present.. Restricted substances lists of the “Big 7” companies, including L’Oréal, P&G, and Avon, have mixed results when it comes to which harmful chemicals are banned. Of the chemicals listed by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics platform as harmful, at least 4 out of the Big 7 companies continue to have no clear policies on these:

1,4 dioxane -- when you find the ingredient sodium laureth sulfate or chemicals that include xynol, ceteareth, or oleth, it is likely that the process that creates those chemicals makes a side product called 1,4 dioxane. There can be trace amounts of this product found in non-organic shampoos and liquid soap. This chemical is considered a “probable human carcinogen” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is currently banned as a cosmetics component in Canada, and is included on California’s Proposition 65, which is a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. 

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) -- these are preservatives found in mainstream lip products, hair products, sunscreen, and more. European studies show strong evidence of BHA as an endocrine disruptor. It has also been found as a human carcinogen when ingested regularly. Despite being completely banned in the EU and Canada, BHA is still found in common personal care products in the U.S..

Carbon black -- this is the most common pigment used in eyeliner, mascara, and almost anything that has a black tint. The carbon black used in everyday products have significant levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs can damage DNA and cause tumors on the lungs, bladder, and skin. This phenomenon of PAHs being carcinogens has already been observed in industrial workers, and will eventually be seen among women who use black makeup regularly. The EU now strictly prohibits carbon black, but FDA regulations still allow carbon black to show up in some of these cosmetics; watch out for ingredients such as lamp black, acetylene black, and D&C Black No. 2.

Diethanolamine (DEA) -- used as an emulsifier, you can find DEA in soaps, shampoos, and lotions. There has been strong evidence that DEA increases probability of developing liver tumors; DEA can also deform sperm cell DNA, leaving them unable to swim. To combat this, as well as DEA’s tendency to form carcinogenic nitrosamines when leaked into the environment, the European Commission has banned DEA completely. However, here in the U.S., you can still find DEA in the form of cocamide DEA. DEA’s less toxic but still harmful cousins, triethanolamine (TEA) and DEA-cetyl phosphate, could also be found on ingredient lists.

Octinoxate -- this chemical is used as a UV filter, so it is most commonly used in sunscreens. However, they can also be found in hair color products, lipstick, and nail polish as a preservative. Unfortunately, octinoxate has been found to disrupt thyroid function, and that it persists within our bodies. Octinoxate is extremely common and is approved for use in cosmetics worldwide. It is interesting to note that the FDA recommended maximum concentration for octinoxate is a high 7.5%. Watch out for octinoxate derivatives such as parsol and octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC).

Oxybenzone -- along with its cousin, benzophenone, oxybenzone is used to preserve the fragrance of products such as lip balm, shampoo, conditioner, and foundation.  However, studies have shown that it may cause endocrine disruption, specifically impacting estrogen levels in cells. They are also likely to stay in our bodies and accumulate in our blood, with one study observing instances of liver failures in rats with this condition. Benzophenone is already facing an outright ban in the U.S., but not oxybenzone.


Polyacrylamide -- you can also see this stabilizer in ingredients list as polyacrylate or polyquaternium. Polyacrylamide is a polymer, meaning that it can break down into its individual acrylamide parts; acrylamide is a known carcinogen from studies looking at mammary tumors. Thus, it’s important to watch out for this ingredient in face moisturizers and anti-aging products. Acrylamide and its derivatives are strictly regulated in the EU, but not in the US.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) -- also known as Teflon®, you likely know of this compound as used in nonstick pans. Surprisingly, this chemical is also present in some foundations and powder-type products. Unsurprisingly, PTFE is dangerous when ingested, as when it is contaminated with a byproduct called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), it poses some serious health concerns. These range from cancer to delayed puberty in adolescent girls. So far, there has been no united action from the Big 7 in regards to banning PTFE, as well as other derivatives such as polyperfluoromethylisopropyl ether or DEA-C8-18 perfluoroalkylethyl phosphate.

Styrene -- Some nail polish and sunscreens (usually SPF>30) contain an ingredient called styrene acrylates copolymer. While safe in and of itself, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics says that the processes used to make this chemical can lead to a contamination of styrene, a known carcinogen. It’s difficult to regulate styrene acrylates copolymer, which means it’s easy for companies to continue these possibly harmful processes to make sunscreens and nail polish.

Titanium Dioxide (inhalable form) -- Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is common in sunscreen lotions/creams, and are actually one of the safest options out there for mineral sunscreens. However, when not in cream form, TiO2 has been found to be carcinogenic when inhaled. Thus, make sure to look for TiO2 on sunscreen sprays or in powder products such as eyeshadow and blush. The E.U. set a maximum concentration of TiO2 in cosmetics as 25%.

The face that the core standards in regulating cosmetics have not changed since 1938 shows the desperate need for change in how Americans make rules on restricting chemicals. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 makes it so that the EPA only has 90 days to test a chemical’s toxicity before it is irreversibly put into the market. This systemic deregulation is spreading sickness among the American populace. It is time for cosmetics regulations that put thepeople and planet over profit.

About the Author: Orven Mallari is currently a senior at Yale University. As an Environmental Engineering major, they are passionate about pursuing sustainable solutions to tackle global issues. When not reading up on environmental justice, they spend their time watching Premier League soccer, dreaming about visiting  every National Park across the U.S., and cooking pasta.

Tagged: natural beauty, thoughtpiece

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