Based on a survey run by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average woman uses 12 personal care products (containing 168 unique chemicals) on a daily basis. Because a woman uses a disproportionately higher number of personal care products (e.g., perfume, make-up, lotion, nail polish), her toxin load is much more substantial than a man’s toxic load.
Unlike with drugs, cosmetic products and ingredients (except color additives) do not need FDA premarket approval prior to being released to the public. Again, unlike with drugs, the FDA is not authorized to order recalls of cosmetics. Moreover, cosmetics regulations have not materially changed since 1938 when the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was put into effect. If it is not obvious at this point, there is entirely too little regulation in this area for optimal health.
Interestingly, many of the ingredients allowed in U.S. products (such as benzene and diethanolamine) have been banned in other countries. For example, the European Union has restricted or banned ~1,300 harmful ingredients from personal care products and Canada has prohibited or restricted several hundred ingredients as well. In the U.S., the FDA originally banned 11 ingredients and has added another bunch of ingredients since (such as plastic microbeads and triclosan & triclocarban). However, we are quite far behind other nations on this topic.
Because of this, personal care product companies can have different formulations of their products, depending on local regulations. For example, the formulation of a baby shampoo from the same company can be different in China v. France v. United States. This suggests that personal care companies often have the capability and know-how to make safer products across all countries they serve, but they may not unless they are mandated to do so...or customers start demanding it.
Unfortunately, our current regulatory approach in the U.S. suggests an “innocent until proven guilty” theory with each new ingredient. That approach makes sense when it comes to legal trials, but probably not when it comes to our collective health. In essence, this approach has made us all human guinea pigs (especially our women). Unfortunately, many of these chemicals have been shown to affect both our health and our fertility. We are running a huge epidemiological study that none of us knowingly opted in to. Until regulations catch up, we suggest checking out Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to search for cosmetics and find out how yours stack up. It is up to you to proactively safeguard your health and the health of your family, especially until we have more robust regulation on this topic. The Personal Care Products Safety Act is one such regulatory proposal, but we are still waiting a decision. In the meantime, it is up to you to be an informed consumer with anything that goes on or around your body.