Senator decries "poisons" as unregulated chemicals in cosmetics draw scrutiny

More regulation for chemicals in cosmetics?

The choices are endless: products promise bold-colored lips, eyes that pop, softer skin or shinier hair. But it's what is in many of those products that may be less appealing – thousands of chemicals, including lead, phthalates and formaldehyde, chemicals experts say are putting consumers health at risk.

According to the Environmental Working Group, women put an average of 168 chemicals on their face and body before they even walk out of the door; men put on an average of 85 chemicals. Studies show some of those chemicals have been linked to health problems, including cancer and infertility.

A new bill in Congress aims to protect people from potentially dangerous chemicals found in everyday beauty products.

Beautycounter CEO Gregg Renfrew says consumers won't find potentially dangerous chemicals in its products. "I think consumers want to know what's in their products; they want to know, are these ingredients safe for their health? They want complete and utter transparency, and that is forcing the entire industry to change."

Renfrew wants to lead a "clean beauty" movement by creating traditional products without traditional and often toxic ingredients, starting with a "never list" – more than 1,500 chemicals they say they'll never use in their products. Chemicals like:

  • Retinol, used in many sunscreens and anti-aging products, which may damage DNA and cause skin tumors;
  • Formaldehyde, a preservative in some shampoos and body washes that can cause cancer; and
  • Parabens, preservatives used to prevent bacteria and mold in some face cleansers and lotions, but shown to disrupt important hormones in the body.

Renfrew said, "We felt like there were no rules, and so we had to create the rules. There was no one in the United States telling us what safe was, and there was no one holding us accountable."

"Cosmetic companies can put virtually anything in personal care products, and there's very little that the FDA can do to stop that," said consumer advocate Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group. He said that's because it has been 80 years since a cosmetic bill was passed.

Faber said cosmetic companies have fought stricter regulations: "Virtually every year from 1950 until 2018, Congress has tried to give FDA these basic powers, and they've been blocked."

The industry group Personal Care Product Council refuted this, saying for years they have worked with members of Congress and others "to create a more contemporary regulatory system" nationwide, and say they are committed to reform.

But in the European Union, some 1,500 chemicals are banned or tightly regulated. In the U.S.? Just 11 chemicals are banned – the last one, nearly 30 years ago.

So, companies like Beautycounter say they aren't waiting for U.S. laws to catch up.

Chief product developer Michael McGeever showed correspondent Anna Werner their products, made without those listed chemicals, like carbon black, a very dense black pigment traditionally used in mascaras,  that has known carcinogenic properties.

And then there are lipsticks, which McGeever said are often made with petroleum and plastic. "What you really want are food grade ingredients, things that are designed to be ingested," he said.

Warner asked, "What are some of the things that I might be eating in a traditional lipstick?"

"Copolymers," he replied, "and those are basically made of acrylics."

The company wants to change the politics of beauty along with the products, by lobbying in D.C.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is co-sponsoring the bill that would give the FDA expanded authority to regulate chemicals in cosmetics. "Companies have a lot of clout and I think they have to be mobilized," she said. "What you put onto your skin seeps into your body – they're poisons."

Under the Personal Care Product Safety Act, a company would be required to report consumer complaints to the FDA; it would allow the FDA to recall products; and would require them to review five chemicals each year for safety.

Some big names in the beauty industry, including L'Oréal, Revlon and Estée Lauder, have publicly signed on, but Feinstein knows she faces a battle. "I will do everything I can to see that people are responsible for the products they put on the open market," she said.

If the bill does pass, screening five chemicals yearly still falls short of many other countries, but Faber says the FDA is reviewing zero chemicals now, so five is better than none.