The Ugly Truth About Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics

The ingredients used in the products we rub on our skin, dab around our eyes, spray on our bodies, and massage into our scalp are—for the most part—unregulated. There isn’t a federal agency in charge of checking to make sure that these chemicals and finished beauty products are safe for long or short term use. In fact, approximately 80% of the ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products have never been tested for safety on human health.

Here’s a little primer on how we got into this mess and what we can do to transition towards a safer, saner world.


Are the laws regulating beauty products up-to-date?

The last time Congress passed a major law addressing chemicals used in cosmetics and personal care products was… (drumroll)… 1938. The Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FDCA) was passed in the 1930s and gave all control to cosmetics companies to determine if the chemicals they use are safe. So it’s pretty much a free for all. In the meantime our understanding of the potential health effects of certain chemicals used in cosmetics has grown exponentially, and the scientific literature is alarming.

(Read here for information outlining the health effects of chemicals on chronic disease.)

For a little perspective, this is a cosmetics ad from 1938


What does the law do (if anything)?

The law does very little to ensure chemicals used in cosmetics and personal care products are safe. It doesn’t require testing of cosmetic chemicals before going to market, it doesn’t ensure your products are safe before they are rubbed on your body or the skin of your child, and it’s widely criticized by the public health community as ineffective and grossly out-of-date.

The FDA sums up the weakness of the law here,

Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.”

How does this differ from the the Toxic Substances Control Act?

The primary law regulating chemicals in the U.S., the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is supposed to ensure chemicals used in every other product sector and manufacturing are safe. But like the cosmetics law, TSCA was passed nearly four decades ago and does very little to regulate chemicals used in our building products, household cleaners, children’s toys, couches and other consumer products.

TSCA is considered the primary federal law governing chemicals, is housed at the EPA and governs all industrial chemicals in consumer products and manufacturing processes (household cleaners, couches, clothing, children’s toys, etc). Whereas the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act is a smaller—yet still important—law regarding the safety of the following product categories: cosmetics, food storage containers, and pharmaceuticals. Both laws are important and both must be strengthened to better protect public health.

Why hasn’t Congress updated our laws on toxic chemicals?

It seems absurd that we have two broken statues on toxic chemicals in consumer products, with little to no action from Congress. Based on my decade worth of experience working to create policy change, I can say a few factors are playing into Congressional inaction.

  • First, people assume the government is already looking out for our safety and don’t know this is a problem.
  • Second, the chemical industry spends millions of dollars each year to fight regulation of toxic chemicals.
  • Third, Congress needs to hear from us on an ongoing basis that we want reform of our broken laws on toxic chemicals. Politicians must “feel the heat” and know there will be a price to pay come election time if they fail to take action to protect our health.

There is good news, in the last five years there has been an up swell of momentum to regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products and cosmetics. Leadership from campaigns like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has tremendously moved these fights forward.

Want to take action? Text “BetterBeauty” to 52886, and you can email your Members of Congress to ask them for more health protective laws on beauty products.

Check out my personal recommendations for safer beauty products HERE.

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