Cosmetic Safety: Public Perception and Scientific Reality

Jan 13, 2014 | Contact Author | By: Joe Schwarcz, PhD; McGill University, Montréal, Québec, Canada
Your message has been sent.
(click to close)
Contact the Author
This item has been saved to your library.
View My Library
(click to close)
Save to My Library
Title: Cosmetic Safety: Public Perception and Scientific Reality
self-regulationx hormone activityx resveratrolx irritationx allergensx endocrine disruptionx carcinogensx
  • Article
  • Media
  • Keywords/Abstract
  • Related Material

Keywords: self-regulation | hormone activity | resveratrol | irritation | allergens | endocrine disruption | carcinogens

Abstract: As far as the public is concerned, hypothetical risks are real. And if anyone studies a chemical in depth, they can find some effect but whether it should be removed from the market comes down to a risk-benefit analysis. Cosmetic formulation is a continuous process of keeping in step with research, and when a true risk emerges, addressing it.

View citation for this article

J Schwarcz, Cosmetic safety: Public perception and scientific reality, Cosm & Toil 128(12) 864-867 (Dec 2013)

Excerpt Only This is a shortened version or summary of the article you requested. To view the complete article, please log in or create an account. Registration is Free!

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.

Excerpt Only This is a shortened version or summary of the article you requested. To view the complete article, please log in or create an account. Registration is Free!



Figure 1. a) Resveratrol vs. b) DES

Figure 1. a) Resveratrol vs. b) DES

Any chemist may notice that resveratrol's molecular structure bears a striking resemblance to diethylstilbesterol (DES), the notorious synthetic estrogen that was introduced in the 1940s to prevent miscarriages.

Next image >



It's Free...

Register or Log in to get full access to this content

Registration includes:

  • Access to all premium content
  • One click ingredient sample requests
  • Save articles in the My Library tool

Create an Account or Log In