So how do we keep our bathrooms free from red-flag ingredients when the complex labels on our cosmetics are notoriously hard to get our heads around? Surely there must be legislation in place to protect us from substances that have been proven to be harmful?
Yes and no; the answer depends on where you are in the world. Chemical regulation for cosmetics in the EU, for example, is undoubtedly an improvement on the US, where a lack of legislation leaves individuals almost completely unprotected. The EU has thus far banned 1,328 chemicals known to cause adverse health or environmental effects such as formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) and isobutylparaben (a hormone disruptor), but these are yet to be prohibited by the FDA. This means that the US cosmetics industry is left to self-regulate, and their products consequently still come laden with chemicals.
And what about a post-Brexit Britain? According to The Guardian, our government is yet to make a commitment to uphold the EU’s chemical regulations. Add to that the plausibility of a new US-UK trade deal, and the regulation of cosmetic chemicals is set to be even more of a minefield.
Then there are the loopholes. Take ‘fragrance’ for instance; ironically, it’s one of the more familiar words from the ingredient list lexicon. But this umbrella term actually covers a whole host of chemicals that could be used to make synthetic scents, and current legislation does not require them to be stated on the label.
“Currently, the safety of fragrance chemicals is not determined by any governmental agency globally in any comprehensive fashion,” explains Daphna Rowe, founder of plant-based perfumery Lovorika. “Instead the fragrance industry has been trusted to self-regulate, and to establish its own safety guidelines for the use of fragrance chemicals. The current system for fragrance safety is run entirely by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) which is the industry association representing fragrance manufacturers. Essentially, it’s the fox guarding the hen house.”
“Without proper fragrance ingredient disclosure, consumers have no way of knowing what they are being exposed to,” Daphna continues, highlighting the near impossibility of knowing exactly what these commercial beauty buys contain. “The most controversial fragrance ingredients of concern include known carcinogens such as styrene, pyridine, or benzophenone; or the use of phthalates, a hormone disruptor used to make scent linger.”
“Chemical analyses of cosmetics and personal care products containing undisclosed ‘fragrance’ ingredients have identified known allergens, asthma triggers, allergens, sensitizers, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and neurotoxins, adds Lily Tse, founder of the Think Dirty app, which rates beauty products according to the safety of the chemicals they contain. “Even products labelled 'fragrance free' have been shown to contain fragrance ingredients, typically due to the use of these compounds as preservatives or as agents to mask the odours of other chemicals in the product.”
Without clear government guidelines to rely on, as consumers we must take on the terminology and check the ingredient list before purchasing a product. Fortunately, there are some powerful digital tools out there which help to equip buyers with the information the beauty industry fails to provide: exactly what risks these chemicals pose, the studies that have been done on them, and how they have been proven to affect both our own health and that of the planet.
EWG’s Skin Deep® is a great starting point. In the absence of proper regulation on cosmetics from the US government, EWG set out to use the power of information to protect human health and the environment. The result is an extensive database comprising information on over 60,000 personal care products and 150,000(!) individual chemicals. The Skin Deep team consult 60 different toxicity and regulatory databases in order to find studies on each ingredient and calculate its relative risk in three categories: Cancer, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, and Allergies & Immunotoxicity. The platform allows users to search for existing products, which are rated from one to ten, or do a deep dive on an individual chemical ingredient.
Yuka (Europe) and Think Dirty (US) are both excellent apps, essentially allowing you to scan the barcode of a product to analyse the ingredient list before you purchase. While Yuka highlights the positive and negative substances comprised in the product, picking out any key chemicals to be aware of, Think Dirty takes it one step further, and even recommends similar clean beauty products to opt for instead.
It’s worth noting, nonetheless, that as consumers we can only work with the information we have available. Databases and apps can help us better understand our ingredient lists, yes – but until said ingredient lists are exhaustive and fully transparent, there will always be an air of the unknown as to exactly what we are putting on our skin.
Driving real change in the industry means getting legislation pushed through, putting pressure on our governments and campaigning for change. After all, both our health and our Earth are dependant on it.
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