Dear EarthTalk: Can you explain the 2010 Safe Cosmetics Act? What does it purport to do and has it been signed into law?
— Megan Wilson, Austin, TX
The Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2010 by Democrats Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. But it never got past committee reviews and thus never came up for a vote.
The proposed bill aimed to ensure that all personal care products for sale in the U.S. would be free of harmful ingredients and that all ingredients would be fully disclosed. The bill would’ve given the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to prohibit the use of certain ingredients, including carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxins, to recall products that fail to meet safety standards, and to require product labels to name each ingredient.
The FDA has only limited say in what cosmetics manufacturers can and cannot put into their products. And the cosmetics industry has essentially been regulating itself for some three decades, and would like to keep it that way. In response to failed efforts in the 1970s to force the FDA to regulate cosmetics more like drugs—with required pre-market safety assessments—the industry decided to take matters into its own hands, creating the Cosmetics Industry Review Panel to judge the safety of various ingredients.
Critics argue that self-regulation isn’t appropriate for an industry trading in potentially carcinogenic products. “It’s a panel funded by the trade association,” Stacy Malkan of the non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics told the Washington, DC-based Corporate Crime Reporter. “For 30 years that they have been in operation, they have only looked at about 13 percent of the chemicals in cosmetics. They do cursory reviews. They look mostly for short term health effects. It’s a panel of mostly dermatologists, not toxicologists. So, they don’t have the expertise to be looking at long-term health effects like cancer.”
Another non-profit, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), has identified upwards of 100 different products that passed Cosmetics Industry Review Panel safety assessments despite obvious violations of that body’s own guidelines. According to EWG’s research, 22 percent of all personal care products on store shelves today—including children’s products—may contain a cancer-causing ingredient (1,4-Dioxane), while some 60 percent of sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a potential hormone disruptor.
In response to the government not requiring cosmetics manufacturers to be more responsible, EWG launched the Skin Deep website, an easy-to-use, keyword-searchable database of cosmetics and their health risks and environmental footprints. The idea behind the website is to let users decide for themselves which cosmetics to purchase; EWG hopes that making this information freely available and easy-to-access will help drive demand for safer products.
Supporters of the Safe Cosmetics Act were hopeful that passage of their bill would usher in a new era of more rigorous mandatory screening of cosmetics here at home, and leadership in a global marketplace hungry for safer, greener products. Advocates for safe cosmetics hope that lawmakers will muster the resolve to reintroduce the bill, or another like it, in the current or some future session of Congress.