“Personal care product” is an umbrella term for all beauty and hygiene products. The idiom is an ironic one; while the title implies that these products contribute to our health and well-being, it is now widely understood that personal care products may actually be doing our bodies and our environment more harm than good.
Many personal care products, cosmetics in particular, contain chemicals that are suspected to be toxic and linked to poor health. Chemicals found in cosmetics, like mercury, formaldehyde, and arsenic, are also associated with cancer, birth defects, hormonal disruption… the list goes on. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the average American uses about ten personal care products per day. When we consider one product, exclusively, a tiny dose of chemicals x, y, or z may not really merit concern. But when we add up our toothpastes and our perfumes and our moisturizers, these “tiny doses” could amount to a chemical count that’s more worrisome.
Product packaging isn’t particularly helpful in informing us about which potentially dangerous ingredients lurk in our shampoos and our lipsticks. Terms like “parfum” and “fragrance” on cosmetics labels can be particularly deceptive; products marketed with these terms often contain doses of many of the aforementioned chemicals.
To date, the United States has only banned nine chemicals from cosmetics. Europe has banned over one thousand. But there’s good news: recently, the U.S. has taken some major steps in a healthier direction.
The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, introduced to Congress this past June, would require cosmetics companies to provide full disclosure of their ingredients, including those that make up products marketed with “fragrance.” The bill, if enforced, will also require companies to register their products with the Food and Drug Administration. Over the next two years, the FDA will develop a list of ingredients that they call “harmful or dangerous” and will prohibit their use in cosmetics.
Surprisingly, the Safe Cosmetics Act is the first real piece of U.S. legislation concerning cosmetics since 1938. 1938 was seventy-three years ago… Until this year, the beauty industry operated under little regulation. Because companies never had to disclose their ingredients, the FDA was pretty much powerless to recall harmful products.
GoodGuide advocates for total transparency in the marketplace. That’s why GoodGuide is rooting for the new Safe Cosmetics Act. In the past, GoodGuide had to adjust its ratings for products that lacked a full list of ingredients or percent composition data. If companies reveal more about their ingredients, scientists at GoodGuide will be able to fine-tune their own ratings and keep consumers even better informed about personal care products.
Unfortunately, GoodGuide and other champions of the 2011 bill are facing some resistance. Cosmetics companies protest that the bill may force them to raise prices, which could hurt consumers. Critics in Congress also complain that the bill imposes an undue financial burden on both the FDA and the personal care industry. In reality, Congress may be doing the FDA more harm than the 2011 bill ever could. Already this May, Republican budget writers called for a $285 million cut to FDA funding for 2012. So, who’s really inflicting that “undue financial burden”? Last year, the bill stalled in its initial form in the Democrat-controlled house. The new bill may stand at even greater odds with the Republican majority, who see it as an example of overreaching government legislation. While it would seem that protecting the health of Americans and promoting a more transparent economic marketplace would be in keeping with American ideals and values, many politicians in Congress appear content to maintain the status quo and continue to limit Americans’ right to know.
Scientists at GoodGuide rate personal care products on their overall health impact by asking the following questions:
- Does the product contain ingredients that are controversial or considered to be of low, medium, or high health concern by national and international scientific standards? If so, how many? And how potent are these ingredients?
- Have any of the product’s ingredients been banned or restricted?
- Do reliable, third party organizations say that this product is safe and healthy?
GoodGuide doesn’t label one product as definitively “good” or “bad.” The company recognizes that some ingredients and dosages in personal care products are more dangerous than others and helps shoppers to make the most informed and healthy decisions possible in the cosmetics aisle. If enforced, the Safe Cosmetics Act would only improve GoodGuide’s ability to inform consumers.
I decided to look up my sister’s “Urban Decay” colored mascara on GoodGuide and was amazed by its “2.0” health rating. On GoodGuide’s website, I was able to identify which of its ingredients are responsible for its poor rating – GoodGuide marks ingredients of concern with red and yellow dots. All I had to do was click on “triethanolamine,” one marked ingredient, to learn more about its health risks. Then I compared her mascara to “Maybelline Ultra Lash Waterproof Mascara,” one of GoodGuide’s top-rated. The brand boasts a “10.0” health rating and none of its ingredients are marked with little warning dots.
GoodGuide’s numerical ratings are free of frustrating fine print and science-y jargon. The website enables consumers to compare product ratings directly, without jumping among online databases in search of ingredients. The experience was both simple and informative, even for someone who is totally unfamiliar with a word like “triethanolamine.”