By Mary Kearns
When consumers go to the store, they tend to assume the products they buy are safe. They trust that the labels “organic” and “all-natural” are true. After all, government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitor the food that is grown, manufactured, and sold in this country. So most consumers think that this also applies to the cosmetics they buy. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
What most consumers do not know is that the current law guiding the manufacture of cosmetics dates back to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938 – enacted 75 years ago! This legislation granted oversight of cosmetics safety to the cosmetics industry itself, meaning that the FDA has almost no authority. While this may have been a good idea in 1938, a lot has changed in the past 75 years. Over 80,000 chemicals and nano-particles have been introduced into the consumer market, and the industry provides very little information on the safety of these ingredients for use in personal care products.
In fact, the vast majority of ingredients used in the manufacture of cosmetic products have not been evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution. At the same time, university and other scientific studies have found that many of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors or mutagens. The United States is lagging behind our European counterparts in terms of oversight of these chemicals. In 2007, the European Union (EU) started requiring the registration of about 30,000 chemical substances, with procedures to collect and assess the properties and hazards of these substances on varying levels of safety. To date, over 1,300 substances have been banned. As a result, many products manufactured in the U.S. are not eligible for export to the EU, putting American manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage in overseas markets.
The sadly outdated U.S. law on cosmetic safety went virtually unchallenged until 2011, when the Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced in Congress. This bill would have given the FDA the authority and resources it needs to oversee the cosmetics industry, helping ensure that personal care products are free of ingredients linked to cancer, reproductive, neurological or developmental harm. It also would ensure that all ingredients are fully disclosed on product labels and on company websites, so that consumers can make informed decisions about their cosmetics purchases. Unfortunately, it died in committee.
But on March 21, 2013, the Safe Cosmetics Act (H.R. 1385) was reintroduced by Rep. Janice Schakowky [IL-9]. The bill has 15 co-sponsors and is currently seeking the consideration of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, as well as the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This bill introduces new measures that would bring the cosmetics industry into the 21st Century, which would benefit consumers, workers, and businesses.
The original 2011 bill was criticized by small businesses for its registration, fee and reporting requirements. The updated 2013 bill exempts businesses with annual sales receipts under $10 million from fees, and exempts businesses with annual sales receipts under $2 million from registration. This means that the updated bill promotes consumer safety while also enabling innovation by small and young companies.
Although the increased use of potentially toxic chemicals is generally seen as negative, one positive outcome is consumers’ increasing concern about exposure to chemicals. As a result, the market for natural and organic cosmetic and personal care products has grown steadily in recent years. As consumers increasingly seek safer products for themselves and their families, a growing number of companies are working to meet this demand – both because they want to do the right thing, and because they know they can make greater profits in the long run.
But these cosmetics manufacturers need objective, up-to-date scientific information to guide a marketplace where businesses throughout their supply chain, and ultimately consumers, can trust that the ingredients in their products are safe. Lack of full disclosure on the part of ingredients suppliers has lead to bad press, damage to company reputations, and costly recalls and reformulations for companies like Johnson & Johnson and Method, which inadvertently sold products containing toxic contaminants that were byproducts of the ingredients manufacturers’ production processes. The Safe Cosmetics Act will reduce costs to companies by eliminating the inadvertent use of such harmful ingredients in their products.
The Safe Cosmetics Act will give the FDA the authority and resources it needs to help ensure that personal care products are free of ingredients linked to cancer, reproductive or developmental harm, and to ensure that ingredients are fully disclosed on product labels and company websites. This will deliver benefits to consumers and businesses alike. It will boost confidence in the cosmetics industry by allowing consumers to make fully informed decisions about the products they buy. It will level the playing field for companies that are already dedicated to manufacturing safe cosmetics. It will make U.S.-manufactured cosmetics competitive in the global market, create new opportunities for innovation in safer alternatives to ingredients deemed to be detrimental to human health and reduce companies’ exposure to liability arising from the inadvertent use of harmful ingredients in their products.
Responsible business people in every industry should sign this letter to Congress and urge legislators to support this important legislation.
Mary Kearns is the President and Founder of Herban Lifestyle, a sustainable personal care products company. She holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology, with a focus on Health, and has coordinated the scientific review of cancer prevention programs for the National Cancer Institute. She serves on the board of the American Sustainable Business Council.
Policy Points is produced by the American Sustainable Business Council. The editor is Richard Eidlin, Director – Public Policy and Business Engagement.