Pretty Ugly

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Get this: While the European Union has banned over 1,100 ingredients from cosmetics, the United States has blacklisted only 10. That’s a jaw-dropping difference, if you ask me. So what gives? Are our chaps across the pond overly cautious in weeding out potentially harmful chemicals or is America taking a slack approach to nixing major health hazards?

See, the US government has no regulatory standards for what companies can and cannot load into personal-care products. Nor does it test these ingredients for health and safety. Sure, the cosmetics industry has an in-house testing panel—but it has assessed a paltry 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients in self-care products in the US! This means that thousands upon thousands of unscreened products are being rubbed onto skin, worked into hair, and absorbed into lips. Way to get after it, testing team.

Even though our government doesn’t have our backs—yet—you’d think the EU’s bans would prompt companies to clean up their acts and Americans would reap the benefits of cleaner cosmetics. Not so. Turns out many major makeup companies produce two different formulations of their products in order to meet each government’s standard. Translation: Europe gets the clean cosmetics; we get the (cheaper-to-produce) junk.

So what constitutes junk? Are there really ingredients in our mascara, lotion, serum, and shower gel that can hurt us? Is there any science behind claims that components such as 1,4-dioxane, disodium EDTA, carbomers, parabens, and artificial fragrances will harm our health down the road? For some ingredients, there is hard science, and for others, there isn’t yet. But again, that’s the crux of the problem: We don’t know what these chemicals will do to us.

Before I carry on like a ruthless toxic avenger, I’ll sprinkle some sugar on the situation. First of all, not all personal-care companies are bad. Quite the contrary. Many have made deliciously clean products for years, and many, many more have put forth recent efforts to oust iffy chemicals from their goods. Still, we’re a long way from squeaky-clean cosmetics shelves and medicine cabinets—and people are taking action.

A few weeks ago, I attended a luncheon hosted by the Women’s Lobby of Colorado, which has teamed with national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) to push legislation for statewide personal-care ingredient regulation. It may have been the free sandwiches, but I’m guessing it was the burgeoning concern for these issues that packed the room full of concerned store owners, manufacturers, media members, chemists, lawyers, moms, sisters, aunts, and cousins. CSC, which took root from the Breast Cancer Fund, has been working hard over the past several years to wake up an entire industry—and millions of American consumers—to the idea that what we don’t know about these ingredients can indeed hurt us. The Colorado effort is just beginning to gather steam now in efforts to make some noise come next January’s legislative session.

It may take years before we see major overhaul in regulation, labeling, and even widespread testing of personal-care products’ ingredients, but we’ve got to start somewhere. And based on the momentum I witnessed—and gladly joined in on—in Colorado, I’m pretty darn sure this can happen. A great place to start? Educate yourself. Visit the CSC website (safecosmetics.org) and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetics database (cosmeticsdatabase.com) for scads of information and to find out if your favorite skincare products are safe. Talk with your friends and family about what you find.