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The Cosmetics Wars

By Mark BittmanNew York Times

If all goes according to schedule, next month the European Union will become “cruelty-free,” banning without exception the sale of cosmetics ingredients that were tested on animals.

Don’t celebrate yet.

Because although there may be less animal testing of personal care products than there once was — even here in the United States — and many manufacturers have found new ways of determining that products are “safe,” there are still plenty of questionable ingredients in your bubble bath, many of which haven’t been tested by any means at all.

And animal testing is far from over. In fact, China officially mandates animal testing of cosmetics, which puts manufacturers in something of a bind: They won’t be able to engage in animal testing and sell in the European Union, whereas their products must be tested on animals to be sold in China. Quantum theory aside, they cannot occupy both of those spaces simultaneously.

No sane person likes the idea of subjecting animals to unnecessary cruelty. But as things stand we’re all being used as guinea pigs in the great test of new product safety. And this matters: The average American woman uses a dozen personal care products daily.

The Environmental Working Group offers a database of more than 79,000 personal care products, from soap to lip plumper (never heard of it? me neither), ranked by level of hazard. These are produced with something like 10,500 different chemicals, and, according to EWG estimates, the industry acknowledges assessing under a fifth of those. Which leaves thousands about which the industry hasn’t even assured us. That’s icky.

But is it worrisome? Well, the ever-popular formaldehyde — used in nail polish, shampoo, soap, and hair straighteners — frequently appears on ingredient lists (sometimes disguised as “formalin”); it’s a known carcinogen. So is dioxane, which rarely appears on labels because it’s not an intentionally added ingredient but a byproduct of manufacturing. (It’s found, for example, in bubble bath.) Some 400 hair dyes and lipsticks contain lead (in small amounts, but you might not want to kiss your kids if you’re wearing lead-tainted lipstick). The endocrine disrupters known as phthalates were found by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in pretty much everyone.

Those are the known dangers; among those thousands barely tested chemicals are certainly some unknown dangers, as chemical companies create new products that will perform miracles in the treatment of human maladies like bad breath, chipped nail polish, and curly hair.

The agency with primary regulatory power over personal care products is our old friend the Food and Drug Administration. And if you’re surprised to learn that the FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetics before they come to market, you might be shocked to know that, according to the agency’s website, “Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products.”

We have a couple of things protecting us. There is, of course, the threat of lawsuits. But if unsafe products don’t cause immediate reactions, those lawsuits could be a generation away, and if an association is never found between an ingredient and a reaction, they could never happen at all. (Something is causing increased rates of allergies, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, certain cancers, and other ailments, and it may take some time before we figure out the causes.)

Then there’s testing, and whether that testing employs animals or other means might be less important than whether it’s supervised and verified by a governing agency. Which, in the United States, it most decidedly is not.

I’m all for ending animal cruelty, but there are perhaps tens of millions of animals involved in laboratory testing, and it’s difficult to say whether their lives are better or worse than those of the tens of billions cycled through the industrial livestock system every year. If testing on laboratory animals can save human lives, and it’s the only method that can do so — well, our hypocrisy around animals involves worse crimes.

But there’s a more sensible solution, and that is to use only known-to-be-safe ingredients in all products that come in contact with humans. As Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at EWG, says, “It shouldn’t be necessary to do more animal testing in order to ban or restrict the dozens of cosmetics ingredients that clearly are hazardous.” Using questionable ingredients may be in the interest of manufacturers, but it certainly isn’t in the interests of consumers.

All of which makes safe personal care very much akin to safe food. We need activists pressing our elected representatives to empower the FDA to safeguard us against known unsafe ingredients as well as unknown unsafe ingredients. After all, we’re animals in need of protection, too.

This article was written by Mark Bittman and published in the New York Times on February 5, 2013. Photo by shimbashi/ Flickr.

2 thoughts on “The Cosmetics Wars”

  1. Easy way to end animal testing…don’t use questionable ingredients! I learned about ingredients in cosmetics about 4 years ago, and it was a process of disbelief, frustration, and then searching for replacements. I am so grateful to have found a company I can be a part of that works to spread the message about this important matter and provide safe, effective products for everyone. It’s a learning process, and it has led to many changes that has noticeably improved the health of our family! Questions everything— think “why does this product say ‘keep out of reach of children’?” instead of thinking “ok, I will…” 🙂

  2. The info about what to look for is helpful. I find myself wondering about my shampoo, toothpaste, etc. And my children…what am I unknowingly subjecting them to?

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