BeautyPoliticsUpdated Laws

Are Beauty Products Made in Europe Automatically Safe?

World travelers love to talk about how things like pasta, pizza, wine, and cheese—until you’ve had them in key cities in Europe, you haven’t had the cream of the crop. 

But what about beauty products? For the past ten years, organizations, companies and advocates like myself have pointed to one statistic to showcase the divide between the United States and the E.U. in terms of cosmetics and personal care safety regulations. 

The stat: the E.U. has banned or restricted nearly 1,400 ingredients in beauty products, while the U.S. has banned or restricted only 30 to date.

But just because the E.U. has banned several more ingredients than the U.S., does that automatically make products made in or for the E.U. safer? Not so fast. The TL;DR is that the science behind safer, cleaner skin care isn’t easy and it will never be as simple as “buy everything from the E.U” or “buy organic.”

I’m here to explain what parts of the E.U. regulations are good and what parts aren’t so great so you can make better choices both at home and abroad. 

The Banned-Ingredients Backstory

The E.U. Cosmetics Directive, passed in the early 2000s, compiled a long list of ingredients to ban or restrict from personal care products. (Restricting an ingredient just means that they can be used with certain conditions, like “less than 1% of the formula”.)  While the list does ban toxic chemicals that are still used widely in the U.S. beauty market, it actually doesn’t go far enough. The restricted list isn’t comprehensive and many harmful ingredients are still allowed to be used in E.U. products, albeit it at or below specific concentrations. Specific fragrance ingredients still don’t need to be disclosed in the E.U., keeping consumers in the dark.

Simultaneously, the original banned list still contains some ingredients that are not commonly used in beauty products in the first place (critics love to cite rocket fuel, which is on the list) which just pads the numbers and leads to a misleading appearance of stringency.

5 Things to Know About E.U. Cosmetic Regulations

  1. They require companies to list out 26+ fragrance allergens: This includes essential oils, which many are considered allergens.
  2. They have restricted many harmful chemicals that are not yet prohibited in the U.S., including certain parabens—i.e. propylparaben (allowed below .4%) and butylparaben (allowed below .4%). And in 2014, five other parabens—phenylparaben, benzylparaben, pentylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropyl-paraben— became prohibited outright. Selenium sulfide, the active ingredient used in many dandruff shampoos, was listed by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogen” and is prohibited under the EU cosmetics directive. 
  3. Manufacturing practices are monitored: The Directive stipulates that all cosmetics must be manufactured in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). GMP ensures that all products are prepared in a clean environment and works to reduce the risk of contamination.
  4. Formaldehyde regulations: Since 2015, products containing formaldehyde (commonly found in hair straightening treatments, nail polishes and as a preservative) cannot be introduced on the market. However, there’s a loophole, of sorts, because formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are still allowed.
  5. Animal testing is banned: The directive prohibits testing finished cosmetic products and cosmetic ingredients on animals.

The key to truly authentic clean beauty formulations includes:

  • Banning and carefully restricting harmful ingredients from product formulations.
  • Screening the ingredients that are used for safety (avoiding harmful health endpoints like cancer, hormone disruption, allergies and more)
  • Fully-disclosing ingredients the company uses (including fragrance components).
  • Screening color cosmetics for heavy metals (while seeking to manage and reduce heavy metal exposure).
  • Companies should also be working hard to source responsibly and use sustainable packaging.

As you can see, products made for the E.U. market are slightly safer than those made in the U.S., but it’s not carte blanche to assume safety. And while the E.U. may have some silly and irrelevant ingredients banned, it doesn’t mean that the whole directive is ineffective or a sham. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. Not sure where to start when assessing your favorite beauty products? Ask them these 5 questions to make sure you’re protected, regardless of where they are made.

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