Health Canada is responsible for regulating cosmetics under the Food and Drug Act and the Cosmetic Regulations. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) provides Health Canada and Environment Canada additional authority to regulate chemical ingredients that meet the legal definition of "toxic". i
Companies are required to notify the Minister of Health of the ingredients, and their concentrations, contained in any cosmetic sold in Canada — but not until 10 days after the product hits the market.
Many chemical ingredients in cosmetics have never been tested for their effects on human health and the environment. Health Canada and Environment Canada are slowly working their way through the assessment of some 4,000 existing substances — including chemicals used in cosmetics — that have been categorized as potentially posing a risk to human health or the environment. Assessment of cosmetic ingredients is often frustrated by a lack of data on exposure and long-term health effects. Moreover, of the handful of chemicals assessed to date and deemed to be toxic, those used in cosmetics generally remain unregulated, with Health Canada opting instead to place them on the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist.
Hotlist — Not so hot
Health Canada lists prohibited and restricted ingredients on the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. The Hotlist, however, has no legal authority and cannot be enforced. Furthermore, the Hotlist is interpreted to restrict only the direct and intentional use of listed substances in cosmetics. Chemicals that are prohibited or restricted as ingredients may therefore still be present in cosmetics as by-products or impurities.
New rules introduced in 2006 require manufacturers to disclose cosmetic ingredients on the product label. This important improvement to the Cosmetic Regulations provides information to consumers and health professionals that was previously considered confidential. Cosmetics are one of the only consumer products for which the public's "right to know" about chemical ingredients is guaranteed in Canada (in contrast, the disclosure of ingredients in household cleaners is voluntary, for example).
Cosmetic ingredient lists can be hard to make sense of, though. The David Suzuki Foundation supports the Canadian Cancer Society's recommendations for clear warning labels on consumer products to indicate cancer-causing substances, as well as other key health and environmental threats.
Another limitation of Canada's cosmetic labelling requirements is that they do not apply to "unintentional ingredients" (e.g., by-products and impurities). For example, "formaldehyde" (a cancer-causing chemical) is rarely listed as an ingredient, although many cosmetics contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.
A similar loophole exists for chemicals used to scent or mask scents in cosmetics. The term "fragrance" or "parfum" on an ingredients list usually represents a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals. Fragrance recipes are considered a trade secret so manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients.
When is a cosmetic not a cosmetic?
"Some products normally thought of as cosmetics are not covered by the Cosmetic Regulations."
— Health Canada ii
Under the Food and Drug Act, a range of personal care products are regulated as drugs because they are considered to have a therapeutic function — including, for example, antiperspirants, face cream with a UV rating, anti-aging lotion, toothpaste and hand sanitizers. Others may be regulated as natural health products if they contain natural ingredients with a therapeutic function. The Hotlist and labelling requirements in the Cosmetic Regulations do not apply to personal care products classified as drugs or natural health products.
i According to CEPA, a substance is toxic if it is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that:
bq. a) have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity;
b) constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends; or,
c) constitute or may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health.
ii Health Canada. Guidelines for Cosmetics Manufacturers, Importers and Distributers. Ottawa: HMQ in Right of Canada, 2005, . http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pubs/indust/cosmet_guide/index-eng.php