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Earlier this summer, a new study found that more than half of 231 cosmetic products tested in the US and Canada contained PFAS, a group of fluorinated chemicals that can weaken immunity, disrupt child development, affect the reproductive system and increase the chance of certain cancers. Whereas Europe has kept a tighter rein on what chemicals can and cannot be included in everyday products, the US’s standards are now over 80 years old.
Now, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) have reintroduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, a piece of legislation that would require companies to disclose all the ingredients used in their products, be able to demonstrate their safety and register their entities with the FDA.
The bill was first introduced in 2015 but failed to pass. This year, with renewed interest in consumer safety and greater awareness about PFAS, Feinstein and Collins are making the case again with the support of industry giants like Unilever, Procter and Gamble, the Estée Lauder Group, Revlon, Beautycounter and Johnson and Johnson backing the legislation.
“I first moved to introduce this legislation several years ago after learning about people in cramped beauty salons getting Brazilian blowout hair treatments and not knowing that formaldehyde is used in many such hair products,” Feinstein told the Guardian. Formaldehyde, which is a colorless and flammable gas, is often found in glues, adhesive, building materials and insulation material. It can cause shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness and has been linked to cancer.
Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at the University of Notre Dame, led the study that inspired legislators to act again on this issue. After years of working through funding shortages and unable to find labs that would be willing to test products like mascara (which can damage expensive and sensitive lab equipment), Peaslee and his colleagues were able to complete tests on more than 200 readily available products in North America. They found that three categories of cosmetics had the highest concentration of fluorinated chemicals: foundations, mascaras and lip products.
“PFAS are being intentionally used in cosmetics, and some are sneaking in unintentionally most likely as well in North America,” Peaslee said. “More alarmingly, their use is not being recorded on many product labels at all. This means the consumer, or consumer facing watchdog groups like Environmental Working Group (EWG), can’t tell if a particular product has been made with PFAS or not. This isn’t good.”
The EWG launched an online database, Skin Deep, in 2004 so consumers could identify personal care products with fewer problematic chemicals. in the beginning the database included about 7,500 products and 7,000 ingredients . Now, it tracks about 74,000 products and just under 9,000 ingredients. But Carla Burns, senior director for cosmetic science at EWG, says collecting information has been challenging “Finding full ingredient lists for some products is not easy. And for some of the newer ingredients, very little data is readily available,” she said.
The political slowdown has also been an obstacle.
“In general Congress Republicans have a hard time addressing the kind of toxic chemicals that are in household items,” said Scott Faber, who leads government affairs at EWG. “Congress often focuses on the threat that will kill you tomorrow, rather than the threat that will kill you in 20 years.”
PFAS are pervasive in beauty products, including sunscreen, shampoo, nail polish, hair styling products and shaving cream. And women tend to be more at risk. EWG research indicates that, on average, women use 12 personal care products each day, thereby exposing themselves to 168 chemical ingredients. Men use about half as many products as women, but still expose themselves to 85 different chemicals on a daily basis.
One of the biggest problems that the Feinstein-Collins bill aims to address is the FDA’s ability to pull products off the shelf. Currently, if a product is found to have unsafe ingredients, such as a high concentration of PFAS, the FDA cannot tell the company to stop selling it. This bill would give the FDA more authority to decide what can and cannot be sold, and how ingredients have to be disclosed to the public.
Though Peaslee supports the bill, he feels that the personal care and beauty industries could solve this problem themselves.
“They could simply declare that they care about consumer health, and the environment as well, by selecting a phase-out date for the intentional use of PFAS in their products, and require their supply chains to produce ingredients to be free of intentional PFAS henceforth,” he said. “That doesn’t cost anything to do but their suppliers would have to use greener alternatives. This could be done within a year or two.”
So far, however, Peaslee notes that only a few companies have come to him and his colleagues for suggestions on how to improve their supply chains, and for information on commercial labs that can provide the necessary testing.
Some brands, such as RMS Beauty and Ilia Beauty, which was founded a decade ago, have been advocating for greater transparency and safer ingredients. Legislation, both companies say, is the real solution.
Elaine Sack, the CEO of RMS Beauty, is part of the coalition lobbying for this bill: “The goal here isn’t to say that only clean brands should exist; rather it is more of an effort to ask for oversight, which goes on in so many other countries into an industry that has basically worked on the honor system for far too long and still has no definition when it comes to ingredient labelling and terms such as ‘natural.’”
Sasha Plasvic, founder and CEO of Ilia Beauty, agreed. “We have so much further to go, especially in the United States, whereby we want to believe the beauty industry is properly regulated, but in truth it isn’t. Having the bill reach a federal level is where this ultimately needs to go.”
Even if PFAS were removed from all cosmetics and personal care products, however, consumers in the US would probably still be exposed to these “forever chemicals”, which do not break down easily. Experts estimate that more than two-thirds of Americans, or 200 million, could be drinking water contaminated with PFAS.