When was the last time you read the ingredient label on a bottle of shampoo? Have you ever sneezed when applying face powder? As you lay on the beach this summer, did you wonder what it was in your sunscreen that blocked the sun’s UV light and protected your skin?
A large number of chemical substances are used in many such products. The HBO documentary series Not So Pretty investigates harmful chemicals used in the beauty industry and centres, in particular, on the experiences of consumers and workers who say that they were exposed to harmful substances in personal-hygiene products. Above all, it is a chilling exposé of the lack of regulation of cosmetics in the United States.
According to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the United States has only banned 11 harmful substances in cosmetic products. By comparison, the European Union (EU), prohibits more than 1,300 substances, and restricts more than 250 with a concentration threshold.
The United States is one of the world’s largest markets of the cosmetics industry. Studies conducted there, in Europe, and in Asia have confirmed that women tend to consume cosmetics and personal-hygiene products much more than men and tend to account for the vast majority of workers (90%) in professional beauty services such as hair and nail salons.
Some interviewed in the series claim to have contracted mesothelioma, a cancer that affects tissue surrounding bodily organs, due to asbestos detected in talc and make-up. Others explain they have suffered fertility problems and even miscarriages as a result of exposure to “everyday chemicals” upsetting hormones, formally known as endocrine disruptors. These include bisphenol A (BPA), which can be found in eye make-up and nail varnish, or phthalates, which keep nail polish from cracking and help the scent of perfumes linger.
The differences between the continents
Despite the parallels, the continents fundamentally differ over how they regulate substances in cosmetics and other personal-hygiene products.
The FDA has little power when it comes to demanding manufacturers disclose their products’ ingredients and safety data. In the absence of such critical information, the agency must nevertheless bear the burden of proof and show that a certain substance is harmful in its intended use in order to withdraw it from circulation.
By contrast, in the EU the Cosmetic Products Regulation framework sets the rules for placing substances on the market on the basis of their human health impacts. The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) also advises the European Commission on the health and safety risks of cosmetic products and their ingredients. Lastly, and contrary to the US, the burden of proof of safety is on the manufacturer, which must add data on cosmetic products to the Cosmetic Products Notification Portal (CPNP) available to competent authorities, SCCS, and poison centres.
Keeping make-up users safe in Europe
In Europe, the manufacturer is always responsible for the safety of the products it places on the market, and each product must have undergone a safety assessment before it is sold. The rule of thumb is that substances that are classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction (CMR) of category 1 or 2 are prohibited from cosmetics. Following a mandatory safety assessment by the SCCS, certain exceptions may be granted. Other EU chemicals regulations complement the safety provisions based on a classification procedure for hazardous substances such as CMR, as well as providing a safety net for environmental risks posed by cosmetics after they’re washed off.
A quick glance over the prohibited substances list of the European Cosmetics Products Regulation reveals that asbestos is banned from all cosmetic products. Moreover, the production and marketing of asbestos is completely prohibited, except in the case of its use for the production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide, two chemicals found in household cleaners, according to the regulator. Asbestos is thus a clear and strict “no go” on the European cosmetics market.
Similarly, BPA and phthalates are also prohibited in cosmetics. BPA is officially classified in the EU as toxic for reproduction, an endocrine disruptor and included in the candidate list of substances of very high concern (SVHC). This means the consumer can request that manufacturers inform them of the presence of the chemical in their articles starting from 0.1% by weight in the article, as specified under the EU’s REACH regulation.
What about titanium dioxide? A white and opaque powder, the chemical has been used for almost a century as a white pigment and can be found in colour cosmetics such as eye shadow and blush, loose and pressed powders. Its resistance to ultra-violent light also make it a key ingredient in many sunscreens. The EU classifies it as a category 2 carcinogen by inhalation, which means this substance is suspected to cause cancer when inhaled. Certain restrictions on its use in cosmetic products are in place and these are especially prevalent in products that are sprayed. For example, a limit threshold of 1.1% is set in professional hair aerosol spray products and in colourants. Powder applications that “may lead to exposure of the user’s lungs by inhalation” are prohibited.
How confident can EU consumers be?
When it comes to the legal frameworks around chemicals and cosmetic products, the European market has extensive safety provisions.
However, regulation may be challenging to enforce within the realm of international trade and online sales. EU reports have highlighted the presence of some harmful substances in cosmetics and other personal-care products circulating on the European market. In 2018, one brand of make-up, including some items made in China destined for children, was found to contain asbestos in Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
The European enforcement authorities collaborate to avoid such products on the EU market, and the Safety Gate platform alerts consumers to non-compliant goods within the EU. Furthermore, the 2020 European Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability aims at an even higher level of consumer and environmental protection with its various actions such as the consideration of “cocktail effects” of chemicals.
Reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals: a checklist
For European consumers seeking to reduce their potential exposure to harmful chemicals, here are some safety guidelines and resources:
- If you are sensitive to common allergens, seek out unscented cosmetics whose labels do not contain the words fragrance or perfume.
- For the sake of the environment and personal health, try to limit the dosage used. Be it a shampoo or a cleaning agent, usually small amounts are enough for the purpose of getting your hair or a surface cleaned.
- Be wary of less-expensive imported cosmetic and hygiene products. The consumer could look at the label and check the country where the product has been manufactured. Manufacturers outside the EU are not necessarily aware of EU regulations and may pay less attention to product safety.
- Tell your medical professional about any unwanted side effects following the use of a product. Keep the product packaging and label for further reference.
- Use the help of European apps detecting chemicals in products, such as INCI Beauty (for cosmetics), ToxFox (for cosmetics and articles), and Scan4Chem (for everyday articles such as clothing, kitchenware, sports equipment, electronics, etc.)
- Use your right to know about SVHCs in articles by requesting information from suppliers.
Oona Freudenthal R&T Associate, Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST)
Oona Freudenthal has received funding from the AXA Research Fund. She is a member of the Committee for Socio-Economic Analysis of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).