Opinion: Beauty products are life-threatening; they shouldn’t be

Photo of Opinion: Beauty products are life-threatening; they shouldn’t be
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The moisturizer we rub into our skin, the shampoo we lather into our scalp and the makeup we apply to our eyes, skin and lips shouldn’t harm our health.

However, a woman lies in a coma in Sacramento after long-term use of skin-lightening cream that contains high levels of methylmercury. A recent study found that women who regularly use hair straighteners, which often contain formaldehyde, are 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Emily Rusch

Last year, certain powdery makeup products marketed to young girls were finally removed from store shelves after multiple rounds of testing found asbestos contaminating those products. Just one fiber of asbestos, if inhaled, could cause malignant mesothelioma.

These are just a few examples of harm caused by the beauty and personal care product industry’s lack of consumer protections.

This is a longstanding problem. Unfortunately, back in the 1930s, when Congress created the Food and Drug Administration, they gave that regulatory body very little authority over the cosmetics industry.

As a result, lead, mercury, asbestos and formaldehyde are just a few of the more commonly known toxic chemicals legally allowed and routinely found in our personal care products all across the country. Even when the FDA has found harmful ingredients in products, they have no authority to recall those products. And Congress has lacked the political will to update the law.

The good news is that California can act to protect our own residents’ health. The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (AB 495), authored by Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, and Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, and sponsored by CALPIRG, the Environmental Working Group and Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, would ban 13 toxic chemicals from all beauty and personal care products sold in California.

The science is already clear and decisive that exposure to these chemicals can cause harm to our bodies. Most of the chemicals are already on California’s list that require warnings to consumers because state scientists agree that the chemicals are known to cause cancer, birth defects and/or reproductive harm.

We know change is definitely doable. After all, many companies, both big and small, have started developing “clean” products that avoid these toxins. In the European Union, all of the chemicals that would be banned in the proposed legislation are already prohibited.

But rather than simply remove these dangerous substances from their products worldwide, many of the biggest beauty and personal care products companies choose to make two different products — one without toxic chemicals for Europe and Asia (where products are more tightly regulated for health and safety), and the other for sale in the United States.

What’s equally upsetting is that the industry trade association that represents big name-brand companies, the Personal Care Products Council, has repeatedly lobbied against stronger consumer protections here in California and in Washington D.C.

Despite their opposition to date, we are hopeful that the California Legislature will prioritize public health with the passage of the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act. Californians should be confident that the products they are routinely using on their bodies won’t cause serious health problems.

Emily Rusch is executive director of CALPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, a statewide non-profit organization that works to protect public health and consumers.

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