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Keeping It Clean

May 09, 2018 12:00AM ● Published by Brian Saucedo

By Kelsey Casselbury

The last major beauty regulations passed in 1938, and some say it’s time for a major industry overhaul.

About a decade ago, a new food fad began to flourish: clean eating. Overall, the dietary concept (which wasn’t truly revolutionary, but did have a catchy name) focused on removing “unnatural,” processed food from your diet and instead limiting your intake to “whole” foods, like fresh produce. From there, though, the definition of clean eating got a little messy because it meant different things to different people. Now, a new, rather similar trend has emerged with the same messy definitions, but this time it’s centered around the beauty business. 

At first glance, “clean beauty”—as it’s known—seems like a no-brainer. Why would we want to use products on our skin, nails and hair that might not have top-quality ingredients in them? Just like in clean eating, though, the concept of clean beauty isn’t so simple. You can start with talking about organic beauty and personal care products, but that doesn’t work as well as you might think. “Organic” is primarily a food certification, for one, and it’s monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It has only given the official certification stamp to a few products (look for the label before you buy, if that’s something that’s important to you). 

So, if you can’t label items organic, there’s another way to go—by throwing a bunch of marketing buzzwords (that don’t really mean anything) on the labels: “natural,” “pure,” “eco,” and “green,” to name a few (and, of course, “clean”). Of course, there are plenty of companies that likely have the best of intentions behind using these words, but there’s no law here to back them up. Zero. Zip. Zilch. “Natural” legally means absolutely nothing. 

That’s not an exaggeration—the regulations in the beauty industry are few and far between; the last major laws passed 80 years ago. Here’s where we get to the crux of the issue: There’s no federal body that reviews ingredients for beauty products to determine if they are harmful to humans. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t give approval to beauty products beyond color additives, USDA has no oversight, and it’s essentially up to a company to make sure that a product is safe (scout’s honor!) 

Across the pond and to the north, the scene is a little different. More than 1,400 ingredients are banned from personal care products in Europe, and more than 600 are disallowed in Canada. In the United States, that number is just 30 (and just recently, as few as 11 ingredients were banned). A few ingredients that will appear in U.S. products but not in European or Canadian include (but are not limited to):

Formaldehyde, found in hair straightening treatment, nail polish, and eyelash glue
- Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), found in nail polish
- Hydroquinone, found in facial brightening and lightening skin care products
- Phthalates, found in skin care, hair care, nail polish, and plastics
- Propyl paraben, found in skin care, makeup, and hair care

The good news: The clean beauty revolution seems to be gaining steam, albeit very, slowly. Senator Diane Feinstein of California introduced a bill in 2015 that would give the FDA more oversight over the beauty industry. It didn’t pass, but she hasn’t given up—it was reintroduced by Feinstein and Senator Susan Collins of Maine in 2017. As of March 2018, though, the bill still hasn’t passed the Senate. This bill, if enacted, would allow FDA to recall questionably safe beauty products and issue regulations on good manufacturing practices, as well as require the FDA to evaluate a minimum of five ingredients for safety per year and require complete ingredient information for products to be printed on labels and available online. The first five chemicals up for review, in accordance to the bill, are diazolidinyl urea, lead acetate, methylene glycol/formaldehyde, propyl paraben, and quaternium-15. 

But here’s the deal: Money talks, and consumers are speaking. Sales of beauty products that are some form of “clean” grew 11 percent between May 2016 and May 2017 and account for more than $2 billion annually. Look for big changes on the horizon as cosmetic companies, both small and large, jump on the clean beauty bandwagon. Will the U.S. cosmetics industry begin to look a bit more like Europes? Only time (and Congress) will tell. 

Want to Know More? 

If you’re in the market for new  beauty or personal care products  and want to quickly know the general consensus on an ingredient, there’s an app for that. Think Dirty. Shop Clean. (ThinkDirtyApp.com) lists more than 68,000 products in its database and evaluates them based on their ingredient list in relation to carcinogenicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity and allergenicity and  immunotoxicity. Scan the barcode on the product and learn about its ingredients. The app  is available for free for both  iOS and Android platforms. 

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