Editor’s note: This article is the basis for the Dec. 12, 2013, Frontiers of Science Award Lecture sponsored by Cosmetics & Toiletries and presented at the Society of Cosmetic Chemists’ Annual Meeting in New York. Here, Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, discusses scrutiny and scientific challenges faced by the cosmetics industry.
Cosmetics are under attack, although this is not the first time. Back in 1770, the English Parliament passed an act declaring that marriages could be pronounced null and void if the man had been “led into matrimony by false pretenses through the use of scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, bolstered hips, high heels or iron stays.” It is not quite clear what iron stays were, although likely they were used to steady features of the female anatomy beginning to droop. It remains a mystery whether anyone sought divorce after being disappointed that the “goods” were not as advertised, but it is safe to assume that cosmetic manufacturers were not happy with the situation. They also were probably not thrilled when Queen Victoria publicly declared makeup to be improper, vulgar and acceptable only for use by actors.
As is well-known to the industry, cosmetics are being assaulted again today, but for a different reason: harboring potentially toxic ingredients. Regulatory authorities are being challenged for not doing enough to protect public health. Finger-pointers range from faceless composers of inane e-mails to various activist organizations that bolster their crusade for “safer cosmetics” with references to scientific literature. Some accusations, such as the assertion that certain mascaras or lipsticks contain toxic amounts of lead, are unrealistic because toxicity is a function of exposure, and the exposure in lipstick is well below toxic levels. However, allegations that some cosmetics may contain hidden carcinogens or hormone-disrupting substances merit scrutiny. Hormones are active at extremely low concentrations, and some “endocrine disruptors” can be found in blood and urine samples at concentrations comparable to naturally occurring hormones.
The cosmetics industry is huge; the U.S. market alone nets $55 billion a year. Unlike pharmaceuticals in the United States, no pre-marketing testing for the safety of cosmetics is required—a fact often vociferously pointed out by cosmetic critics who infer that such a lack in regulations puts consumer health at risk. Of course, governments do not exactly maintain a “hands-off” policy. Canada has a “hot list” of some 500 chemicals that cannot be used in cosmetics, and before any item is marketed, its list of ingredients must be submitted to Health Canada for approval. Furthermore, Health Canada has the power to order the removal of products from stores if it decides there is any risk involved. Regulations are less stringent in the United States, where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must prove that a product is dangerous before removing it from store shelves.
One reason that governments have not taken a heavy-handed approach and required the pre-market testing of cosmetics is that the cosmetics industry has an effective self-regulating program. The U.S.-based Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel is an industry-sponsored group of experts that includes representatives from the FDA as well as consumer organizations. It is charged with the responsibility of compiling and scrutinizing research that is relevant to cosmetic ingredients. The panel’s in-depth reports are used by industry to make decisions about product formulation.