What comes to mind when you think of pollution? Probably not your shampoo, soap
or hand lotion. But some of the chemicals found in personal care products aren't that pretty.
U.S. researchers identified 10,500 industrial chemicals used as cosmetic ingredients, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxics, endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, degreasers and surfactants.
In the spring of 2010, the David Suzuki Foundation invited Canadians to pull back the shower curtain and participate in an online survey about toxic ingredients in cosmetics. We asked participants to check ingredient lists for 12 sets of chemicals — a Dirty Dozen ingredients linked to health and environmental concerns, including cancer, reproductive disorders, asthma and severe allergies.
The report What's inside? That counts: A survey of toxic ingredients in our cosmetics summarizes key findings from the survey, highlights weaknesses in Canada's legal framework governing toxic chemicals in cosmetics, and outlines recommendations for strengthening laws and regulations to better protect human health and the environment.
More than 6,200 individuals participated in our survey, providing information for more than 12,500 personal care products. The results are disturbing.
Sign up for our newsletter
- Almost 80 per cent of products reportedly contained at least one of the Dirty Dozen ingredients;
- More than half of all products reportedly contained multiple Dirty Dozen ingredients;
- Participants were unable to locate ingredient lists on more than 1,000 products.
Equally disturbing, loopholes in Canada's cosmetic ingredient labelling requirements result in incomplete ingredient lists on many products. Notably, manufacturers are not required to disclose specific fragrance ingredients on the product label. Instead, the generic term parfum is listed, representing a mysterious mixture of potentially dozens of chemicals.
Also, personal care products regulated as "drugs" on the basis of therapeutic claims (e.g., tartar-fighting toothpaste, bacteria-killing cleansers, face cream with sun protection) are not subject to the cosmetic ingredient labelling requirements.
Notwithstanding these loopholes, cosmetics are the only type of product, other than food, for which Canadian consumers are afforded the right to know about chemical ingredients. As a result, consumers can seek to avoid at least some toxic chemicals in their toiletries — and many do. Three out of five participants indicated that they check the ingredient list before buying personal care products. But survey results signal how difficult it can be, even for the conscientious shopper, to avoid chemicals of concern. "Buyer beware" is inadequate when it comes to protecting human health and the environment from unnecessary toxic exposures. Government has a role to play in requiring more user-friendly ingredient lists and keeping harmful chemicals out of our products in the first place. Ninety-eight per cent of survey participants agreed that Canada's cosmetic laws should be strengthened.
The David Suzuki Foundation offers recommendations to protect our health and the health of our environment from unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals in cosmetics.
- Replace potentially harmful ingredients in cosmetics with safer alternatives.
- As an interim step, implement hazard labelling for ingredients linked to chronic health concerns and strengthen EcoLogo™ certification criteria for personal care products.
- Require pre-market approval of the chemical composition of cosmetics and allow public access to a searchable online database of information submitted by manufacturers.
- Extend restrictions on cosmetic ingredients to "unintentional ingredients" (e.g., impurities, by-products).
- Extend ingredient restrictions and labelling requirements to personal care products regulated as "drugs."
- Require manufacturers to disclose specific fragrance ingredients.
- Prohibit use of the terms unscented and fragrance-free in the marketing of products that contain fragrance ingredients (including masking agents).
- Prohibit anti-bacterial household products, including cosmetics.
- Restrict use of the terms natural and organic in the marketing of products that contain nonorganic and synthetic ingredients.
- Extend ingredient disclosure requirements to other types of consumer products, including household cleaners, toys and furnishings.
The Dirty Dozen
(More detailed info at davidsuzuki.org/dirtydozen/)
- BHA and BHT: Used mainly in moisturizers and makeup as preservatives. Suspected endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer (BHA). Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
- Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colours listed as "CI" followed by five digits. P-phenylenediamine is used in some hair dyes; other colours are used in a variety of cosmetics. Potential to cause cancer and may be contaminated with heavy metals toxic to the brain.
- DEA-related ingredients: Used in some creamy and foaming products, such as moisturizers and shampoos. Can react to form nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
- Dibutyl phthalate: Used as a plasticizer in some nail care products. Suspected endocrine disrupter and reproductive toxicant. Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
- Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: Used in a variety of cosmetics. Slowly release small amounts of formaldehyde, which causes cancer.
- Paraben, methylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben: Used in a variety of cosmetics as preservatives. Suspected endocrine disrupters and may interfere with male reproductive functions.
- Parfum: Any mixture of fragrance ingredients used in a variety of cosmetics. Some fragrance ingredients can trigger allergies and asthma. Some linked to cancer and neurotoxicity. Some harmful to fish and other wildlife.
- PEGs (e.g., PEG -60): Used in some cosmetic cream bases. Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer.
- Petrolatum: Used in some hair products for shine and as a moisture barrier in some lip balms, lip sticks and moisturizers. Can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which may cause cancer.
- Siloxanes: Used in a variety of cosmetics to soften, smooth and moisten. Suspected endocrine disrupter and reproductive toxicant (cyclotetrasiloxane). Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
- Sodium laureth sulfate: Used in some foaming cosmetics, such as shampoos, cleansers and bubble bath. Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer.
- Triclosan: Used in some antibacterial cosmetics, such as toothpastes, cleansers and deodorants. Suspected endocrine disrupter and may contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
Loopholes in Canada's Cosmetics Laws
- Manufacturers are not required to disclose specific fragrance ingredients on the product label. Instead, the generic term parfum is listed, representing a mixture of potentially dozens of chemicals.
- Products regulated as "drugs" on the basis of therapeutic claims (e.g., tartarfighting toothpaste, bacteria-killing cleansers, face cream with sun protection) are only required to list 'active' ingredients, not complete list as required for products regulated as cosmetics.
- Although most ingredients in cosmetics have never been tested for their effects on human health and the environment, Health Canada does not require pre-market testing of chemicals used in cosmetics.
- Under Canada's Cosmetic Regulations, manufacturers are required to disclose the concentration of each ingredient in their product to the Minister of Health, but this information is not made public.
- Chemicals that are prohibited or restricted may still be present in cosmetics as byproducts or impurities
- Manufacturers are not required to disclose specific fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients
- Products marketed as "fragrance-free" or "unscented" may contain fragrance ingredients, in the form of masking agents that prevent the brain from perceiving odour.