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Are You Using Toxic Cosmetics?

The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 may make your favorite beauty products safer.

| July 1st, 2011
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Are You Using Toxic Cosmetics?

You may not think twice about swiping on your favorite lip gloss or getting a hair-straightening treatment to fight frizz, but exactly how safe are these beauty products and treatments?

The truth is, some contain ingredients, such as formaldehyde (found in hair-straightening treatments) and heavy metals (such as arsenic and lead in lip gloss) that are harmful to your health.

To protect consumers, Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) introduced a new bill, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011. The bill aims to ensure that the personal care products you use on a daily basis—from makeup to nail polish—are safe and non-toxic.

“The current cosmetics law is from 1938, and allows companies to put chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities and other illnesses into body-care products with no required safety studies,” explains Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

“Many everyday products contain carcinogens and other toxic chemicals. Some examples of chemicals that are banned from cosmetics in other countries because they are linked to cancer or reproductive harm include: lead acetate in men's hair dye, coal tar in shampoo, dibutyl phthalate in nail polish and high levels of formaldehyde in hair straighteners.”

The 1938 law gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) the authority to oversee the safety of the food, drug and cosmetics industries. But when it comes to cosmetics, the industry is largely self-regulating, with the F.D.A. only stepping in when something catastrophic occurs.

Take the recent scandal involving the popular Brazilian hair straightening treatment. Some salons and manufacturers claim the product is “formaldehyde-free,” but studies conducted by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (O.S.H.A.) found that all of the products they tested contained the ingredient—a known carcinogen.

It illustrates why the bill is needed to enforce safety measures. “Despite many complaints to the F.D.A. from consumers about hair loss, blistering, rashes and other health complaints from use of these products; despite an O.S.H.A. warning to salons to stop using these dangerous products; and despite congressional pressure for the F.D.A. to take action, the F.D.A. has done nothing and formaldehyde hair straighteners are still being used in salons across the country,” says Malkan.

If the bill passes, what would it mean for your makeup bag? Many everyday beauty products would be safer and less toxic overall. Explains Malkan, “the bill will do three important things: phase out ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects and developmental harm; require cosmetic companies to disclose all product ingredients; and set up a system for the F.D.A. to review the safety of cosmetic ingredients.”

According to Malkan, the bill is very likely pass. “Even the cosmetics industry is acknowledging that the 1938 law needs to be modernized,” she says. “We just need to make sure it is done in a way that protects public health, while also shifting the cosmetics industry toward safer, more sustainable products that consumers are demanding.”

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