The Story Behind Cosmetics

Your cosmetics contain ingredients that the European Union has banned. And believe it or not, the cosmetic manufacturers themselves are responsible for their own regulation. Not a good idea.
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On a recent trip overseas I was shocked to learn that the same exact brand of lotion I use everyday has a different ingredient list over in Europe. Not only different ingredients, but perhaps even safer ingredients. And it turns out, it's not just my lotion that may be safer in Europe. The same may be true for our shaving cream, toothpaste, deodorant -- even the toys that European children are playing with may be safer than those of their American counterparts.

The alarming reality is that 90% of the ingredients in our personal care products have never been evaluated for safety by the FDA or any other independent publicly accountable institution. The European Union has found 1,100 of these ingredients of such concern that they are banned from products sold in Europe.

If skin is our biggest organ, shouldn't we be more aware of what we feed it everyday?

We've often said that our bottled water documentary Tapped is really a microcosm for some of the much larger issues facing our country -- one of which being lack of regulation. We were stunned to find out that there is only one person at the FDA responsible for monitoring all the bottled water in the U.S -- and they only work on that part time. As it turns out, when it comes to our personal care products we'd be lucky to have even one person at the FDA regulating the chemicals found in our everyday products.

The way the Cosmetics/Personal Care industry works is so illogical that I'm going to break it down for you in the simplest of bullet points. Even then, I warn you, the logic is so asinine you will be inclined not to believe me - as such I'll include lots of links so you can see the source information for yourself.

  • The FDA is the agency in charge of regulating cosmetics (yes, it is the Food and Drug Administration and why it has authority over cosmetics is in itself asinine but we'll leave that discussion for another day).
  • With the exception of color additives the FDA has no authority to regulate cosmetic products or ingredients. Yes, you heard me correctly -- the agency in charge of regulating the cosmetics industry wasn't actually given the authority to do any regulating.
  • The cosmetic firms are responsible for making sure their products are safe for us. Again, no, your eyes are not playing tricks on you -- the firms that make the cosmetics (and the money off the cosmetics) are the same ones charged with determining their safety. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel -- a self-policing, voluntary "safety" panel -- was established in 1976 by the Cosmetics industry trade group in an effort to discourage legislation that would change the law and allow the FDA more authority over their product.

In the simplest of terms, the American regulatory system operates on an "innocent until proven guilty" model. We assume it's safe if the manufacturers tell us it's safe; and until enough scientists raise enough flags to demonstrate otherwise (as was the case most recently with Bisphenol A) then the product remains. The European Union, on the other hand, operates on a precautionary principle wherein it takes action on potential risks. As a result the EU has dwarfed the U.S. for the past 5 years in protecting its citizens by requiring a scientific review of all products "intended to be placed in contact with various parts of the human body." The result is a ban of 1,100 ingredients including any and all CMRs -- Carcinogens, Mutagens or Reproductive toxins.

To insure the same prohibitions enacted by the European Union didn't cross the pond, the cosmetics industry spent upwards of $600,000 lobbying against legislation in California that would require cosmetic companies to disclose the presence of ingredients that may cause cancer or birth defects. Proctor and Gamble alone spent $90,000 lobbying against the Safe Cosmetics Bill which wouldn't even prohibit the use of these chemicals, but merely require disclosing that they are in the product. The irony of all ironies is these very same cosmetic companies had already reformulated their products to comply with the EU which meant that the popular diaper rash cream you bought in California could still contain sodium borate, which has been linked to problems with testicular development, while the same brand in France could not.

It's easy to hear all of this and feel discouraged -- just more bad news about things that may kill us. Most people ask me, "well what can I do about it anyway?" While it's true that there seems to be a new boogeyman around every corner these days -- bottled water, cell phones, beef -- we are always presented with the same two options to any problem: we can do something or we can do nothing. Frankly I think doing anything, no matter how small a gesture, is better than doing nothing at all.

  • Support Senator Lautenberg's Safe Chemicals Act which would regulate toxic chemicals in the U.S. This bill would require manufacturers to provide information about the chemicals in our products rather than relying on the current innocent until proven guilty method.
  • Support the Environmental Working Group and other nonprofit groups that fill in the holes left by government. You can support them directly or we'll donate of every Tapped DVD sold if you enter the promotional code "Cosmetics" when you check out.
  • To find out what's lurking in your favorite products visit the EWG's Cosmetics Database -- the most comprehensive easy-to-use guide out there to determine how toxic your products may be for you (and your family).
  • The Good Guide is another great database that allows you to search for cosmetics as well as certain foods (great source for checking what's in your baby's food), household products and toys.
  • Forward the above Story Behind Cosmetics video to all your friends and help spread the word on how to buy better products.

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