If you’ve heard my story before, you know that my own wake-up call to the lack of consumer safety provisions came when my 2-year-old had an accidental exposure to the all purpose cleaner 409. He was fine, but what blew my mind and spurred me to action was learning how little oversight there was in consumer product safety in household and cosmetic products, beginning with the primary issue of not being able to know WHAT is in them—before we can even ask the question of how safe they are.
In personal care, for example, the FDA is operating under the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, whose 14 sentences about cosmetics feebly attempt to hold the reins on a $100B domestic industry. Contrary to my assumptions cosmetics manufacturers have not been required to do anything along the lines of submitting safety information, obtaining FDA approval, registering formulations, reporting cosmetics-related injuries, or even listing all ingredients. The FDA also has had no authority to recall products nor to restrict problematic ingredients beyond a very short list.
Some 15 years since I began my own journey, I want to update you with where things stand as far as consumer safety legislation and oversight. There have been some strides forward when it comes to consumer protections, but there is still much work to be done.
I want to thank the work of the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and their director Janet Nudelman, not only for their advocacy efforts towards greater consumer safety legislation, but also for being a resource in my own understanding of the problems and the progress. Also, I appreciate the efforts of the Environmental Working Group towards research and policy support for many different realms of consumer safety.
The main consumer product safety concerns
Transparency: ALL ingredients should be listed on products, with no exclusions for fragrances, colorants, or other special exemptions. This allows individuals, and especially vulnerable populations, to evaluate the best products for their circumstances.
PFAs: Nicknamed “forever chemicals” due to their profound inability to breakdown, Poly- and Perflouroalkyl Substances (PFAs) are a group of more than 9,000 synthetic chemicals that have been used in consumer products from fabrics (as stain and water proofing agents) to cookware coatings (as nonstick coatings) to cosmetics (as smoothness enhancers). Their residues are found ubiquitously in the human body as well as in animals and environments everywhere. Banning their use is one major step forward, as scientists work to figure out how to remove their residues.
High-Hazard Ingredients: Certain ingredients, including phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde, and formaldehyde-releasers, have well-documented hazards and should not be in body care or house care products.
Authority to Assess and Address Problems: There has been no requirement to report adverse reactions to products or ingredients and there has been no ability to issue recalls.
Summary of victories in consumer product safety
There has been noteworthy progress towards bringing about greater consumer safety and amending long out-of-date policies. I want us to pause and celebrate this. There has been greater awareness amongst consumers, and I firmly feel this is the power of grassroots activism. Let’s take note of these victories and may they spur us all on towards the next steps forward.
You will notice that most of these legislative victories are at the state level, and most of them are in California. This may be discouraging to people who live elsewhere, but do consider that California is the largest state economy in the country and on its own is the fourth largest in the world. Not only does action in California build momentum elsewhere, but when companies must take action in California, it often behooves them to apply the action across the country.
California Cleaning Product Right to Know Act – As I wrote about previously, this law brought ingredient disclosure to cleaning products, and in fact brought greater transparency for cleaning products than we had for cosmetics. This was passed in 2017 and implemented in 2020.
California Professional Cosmetics Labeling Act for Safer Salons – Products that are sold to salons and not directly to consumers have different labeling requirements. Where there was some, albeit insufficient, ingredient disclosure on direct-to-consumer products, salon products did not prior to this require any ingredient disclosure. This law, signed in 2018, closed that loophole.
New York limit on 1,4-Dioxane levels in house and body care products – Two amendments passed in 2019 to the NY Environmental Conservation law gave a threshold for the presence of the known carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane in house and personal care products. By the end of 2022 concentrations must drop below 2 ppm, and by the end of 2023 they must drop below 1 ppm. 1,4-Dioxane will never appear on an ingredient list because it is not an intentionally added ingredient. Rather, it is a byproduct that is shed by certain other ingredients and produced during manufacturing processes.
California Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act – Passed in October 2020, this legislation is the first law that closed the fragrance loophole by requiring disclosure of hazardous flavor and fragrance ingredients in cosmetics and professional salon products.
California Toxic-Free Cosmetic Act – Signed in 2020 and set to go into effect in 2025, this law bans 24 of the most toxic ingredients from cosmetics products.
Maryland Cosmetic Products Ingredient Prohibition – Similar to the California law, this 2021 law bans the same list of 24 ingredients in cosmetics and goes into effect in 2025.
California banned PFAs – California first banned all PFAs in food packaging paper and required their disclosure on cookware in 2021 and later followed up by banning PFAs in cosmetics in September of 2022.
Modernization of Cosmetics Regulations Act (MCRA) of 2022 – This massive national reform package took long-needed steps to strengthen the long outdated 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It achieved some significant steps forward, though also took a couple steps back and left work to be done.
- The FDA now can register cosmetic facilities, products, and ingredients to track the manufacturers and formulations.
- Serious adverse health events must be reported, and the FDA can now issue recalls and notify the public of harmful cosmetic products.
- Fragrance allergens must be disclosed on cosmetic product labels, and fragrance and flavor ingredients must be reported to the FDA.
- Salon products must have on-label ingredients listed.
- Products that contain talc must be tested for asbestos.
Consumer product safety legislation still to be done
While the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulations Act took great strides forward, some gaps still remain. A more comprehensive suite of bills called the Safer Beauty Bill Package, which included four distinct bills, died in Congress in 2022. Though many of their provisions were adopted into the MCRA, and here is what was left out and where we can direct our efforts:
- Greater protections for people of color and beauty salon workers who experienced far higher rates of exposure to problematic ingredients must be implemented.
- Federal legislation needs not to pre-empt stronger state legislation.
- We need national ingredient disclosure for house care products.
- There needs to be national recognition and protection against high-hazard ingredients and PFAs in cosmetics and house care ingredients.
What we can do as individuals
- Educate ourselves about the ingredients in the products we use on ourselves and in our homes through sources that reference peer-reviewed research.
- Purchase body and home care products from companies who disclose ingredients lists either on-package or online and are otherwise transparent about their ingredients and sourcing. This is voting with your dollar.
- Support ballot measures that move manufacturers to disclose, limit, or remove ingredients that have been proven harmful to humans and the environment. When bills are under consideration, contact your representative to let them know of your support.
Legislation has had no bearing on what we do at Dr. Bronner’s for consumer safety. We have always believed in full transparency, which is why all ingredients are listed clearly on every product as well as easily found on our website. We are scrupulous in ensuring that ingredients are the best for consumers and the environment and have rigorously pursued organic, fair trade, cruelty-free, GMO-free, and Regenerative Organic certifications to verify that ingredients are of the highest quality, free of contaminants, and produced by the most sustainable and ethical means possible.
That legislation has made significant progress should be an encouragement to us all to keep the momentum moving forward. But even so, while regulation and transparency may come, so will the development of new ingredients and research that pinpoints new hazards. We will always be playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. This is why products using fewer and simpler ingredients is always my encouragement to consumers.