For decades, the Food and Drug Administration has had bare instructions for how to regulate the millions of lipsticks, moisturizers, haircare and other cosmetics sold each year. Even after last year's bipartisan bill proposed to give the FDA broader oversight, including the authority to force recalls of dangerous products (with backing from the Environmental Working Group), it reflected a new reality for manufacturers of personal care products, which face more pressure than ever to respond to consumer concerns.
However the latest report published today "Big Market for Black Cosmetics, but Less-Hazardous Choices Limited" from Nneka Leiba, EWG deputy director of research and Paul Pestano, an EWG senior database analyst, is an alarming expose of the beauty industry. With Skin Deep adding more than 1,100 products marketed to black women to their database because of these new findings, it seems in some ways, that the regulation of cosmetics has not changed much since passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938.
EWG created the Skin Deep database as a way to combat the serious deficiencies in cosmetics regulation. "According to our analysis, fewer than 25 percent of the products marketed specifically for black women rated well in Skin Deep, compared with 40 percent marketed to the general population," says Leiba. "About one in 12 products marketed to black women scored poorly in Skin Deep for having ingredients with associated hazards. Relatively, this is roughly the same proportion for all other products in Skin Deep. What we did find, however, is that market data suggest that black women buy and use more personal care products than other demographics."
The bottom line? "Unfortunately, it's that black women had fewer healthier options when it came to products marketed specifically to them," says Pestano. But why aren’t there more low hazard products available for black women? “This is a great question, but in our opinion the question should be even bigger. Why don’t all the personal care products on store shelves, for all demographics, meet a basic level of safety? The answer is that we have a broken regulatory system that is severely behind the times,” says Leiba
As the debate rages, it highlights a lack of public knowledge—and sometimes sexism—surrounding regulations. What do they view as the biggest barrier to safer cosmetics? "Cosmetics are woefully under-regulated in general," says Leiba. "The federal regulation governing cosmetics has remained largely unchanged since 1938. For decades, EWG has been filling the gap in federal regulation by educating consumers about the ingredients in their cosmetics and personal care products with our Skin Deep database."
Once companies start making these shifts, the passage of proposed laws such as the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013 (which would give the FDA the authority it needs to regulate products effectively) will be possible. "Until Congress passes an update to the cosmetics law, consumers need to vote with their wallets to demand change from companies. In the meantime consumers should opt for products with fewer ingredients, and support those companies that already use healthier ingredients and list those on product packaging," says Leiba.
Ultimately, buyer pressure will convince companies to do the right thing by eliminating toxic chemicals and transparently listing all their ingredients. We are getting savvier by the day, becoming more familiar with the names of chemicals we are eager to avoid and with women making roughly 85% of household purchasing decisions in the US, companies would do right to listen to their concerns. "We hope women will demand change from companies and ask the government to pass stronger cosmetics laws," says Leiba. "It is heartening to see a range of green-scoring products. Some of the brands used widely by the black community scored really well. We want women to opt for products that score well and support those companies."
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