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The Danger Behind Lax Cosmetic Labeling Laws

You’re a conscious consumer. You own more reusable shopping bags than you can shake a stick at and can decipher a complicated food label faster than you can say “plant-based."

Unfortunately, however, laws on labeling for personal care items and cosmetics are incredibly lenient and full of loopholes. You may be bringing chemicals that you otherwise work hard to avoid into your house and onto your lips, eyes, and skin. 

Here’s how to decipher what chemicals may be hiding behind basic ingredient names, what these chemicals mean for your body and the environment, and how to select cosmetics that align with your personal values. 

The Problem With Current Cosmetic Labeling Laws

You may assume that a product undergoes strict regulations before it is available for consumers. But cosmetic labeling laws may be allowing harmful endocrine disruptors to slip through the cracks. These are often labeled under general terms, like “fragrance,” “sunscreen agent,” or “preservative.”

While you may have already scoured for a label warning of the presence of harmful ingredients or run your cosmetic through a pore-clogging ingredient finder, you might be missing some key endocrine system disruptors. 

What Is an Endocrine System Disruptor? 

The endocrine system is a collective term. It describes the cells, glands, and organs that release hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones regulate just about everything, from the way you digest a donut to how much testosterone you produce. It’s a delicate system that is affected by your environment and can be affected by something called an endocrine system disruptor. 

Endocrine system disruptors come from outside sources and disrupt the normal functioning of your body’s endocrine system. The environment you live in, the foods you eat, and the products you use can all play host to endocrine disruptors. The cosmetics that you apply to sensitive areas like your eyes, lips, and skin might be absorbing unlabeled and potentially dangerous endocrine disruptors

Just like the name suggests, endocrine disruptors might interfere with the functioning of your delicate endocrine system. There is clear evidence that wildlife is affected by these chemicals, and more observations are being conducted to determine the severity to which humans are affected

Unlabeled endocrine disruptors in your cosmetics could affect your

  • Skin texture and acne
  • Attention span
  • Stress management and responses
  • Metabolism 
  • Thyroid function
  • Reproductive system
  • Immunity
  • Disease resistance 
  • Susceptibility to hormone-related cancers

The trouble doesn’t stop there. These chemicals can harm the environment, as well. Skeletal deformities, impaired immune systems, and reproductive issues in wildlife are being researched for their relation to the presence of endocrine disruptors in pollution. Lenient labeling laws for household products—especially cosmetics—means that your products may be harming you or the environment. 

Mascaras, Foundations, and Lipsticks ... Oh My!  

One of the biggest culprits that may be hiding behind an innocuous term like “thickening agent” is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—PFAS for short. PFAS are added to cosmetics to increase their durability and water resistance. Cosmetics that are labeled as “long-lasting,” “waterproof,” or “all-day coverage” might rely on PFAS for these features. 

PFAS are a class of more than 4700 chemical compounds that have water-repellent qualities. Cosmetic companies use PFAS in cosmetics to increase durability, spreadability, and skin absorption. PFAS also help improve the appearance or texture of the skin, making them a common component of mascaras, foundations, and lipsticks. 

In the first study of its kind, researchers at the University of Notre Dame screened 231 cosmetics across eight categories for the presence of PFAS. These cosmetics, purchased from retailers including Ulta, Sephora, and Target, did not disclose the presence of PFAS on their labels or in their ingredients list. 

The study found that the cosmetics that had the highest presence of PFAS and high-fluorine products were foundations at 63 percent, eye products at 58 percent, mascaras at 47 percent, and lip products at 55 percent. The words “long-lasting” and “waterproof” were often the only indicators that these products might contain PFAS. Staggeringly, 82 percent of waterproof mascaras tested were found to contain unlabeled PFAS. 

To complicate matters further, these products are often used on your eyes, lips, and skin—the areas of your body that are most susceptible to the absorption of toxic chemicals. In addition to this direct exposure, PFAS can end up in drinking water after being washed off the skin, contributing to environmental pollution and disruption. So, why aren’t labels warning you about these chemicals——or even listing them as an ingredient? 

The Loopholes Behind the Labeling Laws

While the labeling of cosmetics is regulated under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the 1967 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, these acts contain loopholes that some cosmetic producers use to their advantage. 

From the FDA’s Summary on Cosmetic Labeling Requirements:

“Although the FD&C Act does not require that cosmetic manufacturers or marketers test their products for safety, the FDA strongly urges cosmetic manufacturers to conduct whatever toxicological or other tests are appropriate to substantiate the safety of their cosmetics”.

Along with limited regulation of testing, the FD&C Act does not require a company to disclose an ingredient of which the company considers a trade secret.

Finally, the handbook that is used to determine what ingredients must and must not need to be disclosed to the consumer contains generalized guidelines and exemptions for polymers, silanes, siloxanes, and color additives in cosmetics. 

An Endocrine Disruptor, By Any Other Name ...

The landmark study by Notre Dame University on undisclosed PFAS in cosmetics highlights the need for stricter labeling laws and testing regulations for cosmetics and personal care products. Unfortunately, PFAS are not the only unlabeled and undisclosed chemical that you might be spreading onto your skin, waterline, or lips. 

Phthalates are lab-made chemicals with a liquidy, oily texture. Phthalates don’t evaporate easily, and cosmetic manufacturers use them to make fragrances last longer. Similar to PFAS, lenient labeling laws allow manufacturers to list these endocrine disruptors under a different term. In this case, phthalates can simply be called a “fragrance"—even if phthalates make up 20 percent or more of the product.     

Parabens are another endocrine disruptor that may be hiding under a seemingly harmless term. Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetic products to help protect the products from growing mold or bacteria. While these are good qualities, parabens are also easily absorbed in the skin and have been linked to breast cancer. While FDA regulations require that parabens be labeled (look for the word “paraben” at the end of the ingredient), they can also be listed under the name “Alkyl parahydroxybenzoates.”

BPA is another chemical that is linked to endocrine disruption and health issues. While BPA isn’t commonly found as an ingredient in cosmetics, it can show up in the packaging that houses the cosmetic itself. It may also be used in the processing and creation of the cosmetic you are using, and therefore is not required by the FDA to be disclosed on the label. 

The Larger Cost of Endocrine Disruption 

Despite the known risks of endocrine disruptors to the environment and to humans, Europe is the only regulating body considering stricter regulation on products that contain known endocrine disrupters. 

These chemicals are affecting more than just our bodies and our environment: they are driving up healthcare costs. Sicker Fatter Poorer, published by Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, examines the economic costs of diseases associated with endocrine disruption. His findings? Over $340 billion, annually, might be linked to the harmful effects of chemicals in our food, household, agricultural, and personal care products.

The gaps in labeling laws mean that until the government takes the onus to change their regulations, you have to be a cautious consumer when it comes to what you are using in your beauty routines. 

So, What’s a Makeup Lover to Do?

Until changes are made in the industry and these chemicals are labeled accordingly or banned, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and the environment. 

  • Read ingredient labels and look for some of the cover-up terms for harmful endocrine disruptors and toxic chemicals. Opt for items that disclose what they mean by fragrance. Be wary of anything that boasts waterproof qualities or long-wear capabilities. 
  • Opt for homemade cosmetics for children. There are plenty of cosmetics and personal products marketed towards the 12 and under crowd, but the regulations are similarly lax. Use all the same precautionary measures as purchasing makeup for an adult consumer, or consider turning it into an arts and craft experience by helping them make their own plant-based makeup with natural ingredients. 

Check out the packaging. Plastics that are marked with a PC for polycarbonate or recycling level #7 may contain BPA, a known endocrine disruptor. At Kinder Beauty, our box contents are made from 100-percent recycled materials and are both biodegradable and compostable.

The packing materials inside the box are also made from 100-percent recycled materials, and the ink used to print our logo and designs on the outside of the box is an eco-friendly soy-based ink. While many of the brands we work with use only eco-friendly materials in their packaging, not every brand are there yet. We encourage our consumers to join us in urging more brands to switch to earth-friendly materials. 

  • Consider a kinder alternative. At Kinder Beauty, we carefully consider each product that we use in our boxes. We are an activist-founded, cruelty-free, vegan, and clean beauty box company that is on a mission to make the world a kinder place for animals, for people, and for the planet. Each chosen product goes through a strict vetting process to guarantee that every product we send your way has not been tested on animals and doesn't contain any nasty animal ingredients or byproducts, which are often shown to contain endocrine disruptors. 

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Alexis Yeager is a Colorado-based writer focused on veganism, holistic wellness, and sustainable beauty.

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