Unregulated cosmetics are unfortunately safe until proven toxic

Illustration of sickly woman putting on makeup
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

For the past 10 years of my life, I have applied makeup, perfume, deodorant, hair products and lotion almost every morning. I wanted to look and smell good, as did many of my peers who had similar morning routines. Naively, I assumed there were no negative health effects associated with such widely used cosmetic products. I assumed that the United States had systems in place that ensured that cosmetics were tested and safe, and I assumed that companies could not profit from our poisoning. While these assumptions are true in most advanced industrial democracies, the same cannot be said for the United States.

Here, the cosmetics industry is subject to astonishingly little regulation. While food, drugs, drinking water, pesticides, cars, toys and electronics are comprehensively federally regulated, the Food and Drug Administration can only regulate the chemical dyes in cosmetics under current law. Unfortunately, as Connecticut State Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, explained, “Many Americans are unaware that they are absorbing untested and unsafe chemicals in their products.”

The lack of regulation and standards in the cosmetic industry does not affect everyone the same. In fact, this is a highly gendered and racialized issue. While men use an average of 5-7 cosmetic products a day, women use an average of 9-12. Women of color, however, are exposed to higher levels of cosmetic toxins than white women. On average, women of color use more cosmetic products and, according to a 2016 study, products that are made specifically for Black women are more likely to contain harmful ingredients.

The gender and racial discrepancies in cosmetic toxin exposure stem in large part from societal pressures on women, especially women of color, to conform to increasingly unrealistic beauty standards. These beauty standards are not just about wanting to look beautiful, however. Studies have shown that women who are perceived to be attractive and well-kept are given more opportunities to advance in their professions. For women of color, attractiveness and appearing well-kept can be synonymous with having lighter skin and more European-looking hair. To achieve these standards, women of color expose themselves to more toxic chemicals through various products and treatments.

In our virtually unregulated cosmetics industry, products that are marketed for women often contain chemicals that are especially harmful to female bodies. Phthalates have been found to disrupt lab animals’ reproductive processes; parabens have been associated with decreased fertility and other reproductive issues; and chemical fragrances have been associated with all sorts of adverse health effects, ranging from cancer to asthma to reproductive dysfunction. These three chemicals are present in many cosmetic products. Thus, cosmetic toxicity is not just a public health concern but also a problem of sexism, racism and environmental injustice.

In May 2019, a bill calling for cosmetics regulation was put forth in Connecticut. This bill required cosmetic products to “meet the chemical safety standards established by the European Union,” which would ensure that chemicals could not be sold commercially unless they were proven to be safe. While this bill is not likely to become law, it describes the standards that cosmetics should meet in the U.S. Rather than safe until proven toxic, cosmetic ingredients must be considered toxic until proven safe.

U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Susan Collins, D-Maine, introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act to the Senate in March 2019. This legislation would require the FDA to review the ingredients in cosmetics and grant the FDA both the authority and resources to keep harmful products off of store shelves. Right now, this potentially life-saving bill is waiting to be voted on in the Senate. If you care about product safety, corporate accountability and environmental justice, I urge you to call your representatives and ask them to support the Personal Care Products Safety Act.

The research I have done regarding cosmetics has opened my eyes to the dangers of trusting what I find on store shelves and websites. I have thrown out several of the cosmetics products that I had previously used, and I now research the ingredients in products before purchasing them. I encourage you to do the same to protect yourself from an industry that seemingly cares little about its consumers’ health. Until comprehensive cosmetics regulation is passed, it is up to us as consumers to keep harmful cosmetic chemicals out of our body.

Lauren McCormack is a junior at UC Berkeley studying sociology and conservation and resource studies.