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Do you know what is in your cosmetics?

You use cosmetics to appear more attractive—to highlight your eyes, brighten your lips or conceal minor blemishes. But would you still use them if you learned they could put you at risk for cancer or other diseases?

Due to the lax regulation of U.S. cosmetics, many of them either contain—or may contain—toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, sulfates and asbestos. It is almost impossible for consumers to know what most cosmetics contain. And that fact recently became the subject of a documentary, Toxic Beauty.

When businesses regulate themselves

As the makers of Toxic Beauty discovered, U.S. cosmetics manufacturers have long been held to remarkably lax standards for testing and labeling their products. One of the filmmakers said she started her work on the project with some idea about the things she might learn, but soon found more than she had suspected. She added, “I’m almost afraid to use anything.”

Among the problems the film noted were:

  • Deceptive labeling. The filmmakers specifically called out the term “fragrance” because it could disguise any of 3,163 different ingredients.
  • Limited testing. The U.S. limits the use of roughly a dozen ingredients. Compare that number to the roughly 1,300 ingredients controlled by the European Union.
  • Old laws. The laws governing the U.S. cosmetics industry were passed in 1938 and are more than 80 years old. It’s safe to say science has progressed considerably in those last 80 years.
  • Self-regulation. What happens when a multi-billion-dollar industry regulates itself? It does what it finds good for business. It approves itself.

It’s particularly noteworthy that the cosmetics industry has long regulated itself. The film explored the perils of talc and highlighted Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder. Naturally, Johnson & Johnson disputes the underlying claims that its talc contained asbestos. But there are deeper questions at play.

Some companies are marketing their “clean” cosmetics as healthier alternatives, saying they only work with talc suppliers who “certify” their talc is asbestos-free. How can they certify this? Some reporters have suggested they might not find asbestos in their talc “simply by not looking hard enough.” Or they may decide to rename the asbestos fibers they find as “cleavage fragments.”

What can you do?

Although the so-called “clean” cosmetics may not be entirely free of harmful substances, they may be a step in the right direction. More importantly, you can read the labels and aim for products that provide their full list of ingredients. You can also check your products against watchdog websites. Finally, you may want to avoid talc products altogether. Consumer protection groups routinely find traces of asbestos in the talc products they test.

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