Should the US be taking note on European cosmetics regulation?

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Personal care products Cosmetics Us

Last week’s announcement that the French government is mulling plans to introduce cosmetics labeling for mothers-to-be again raises the question of whether enough is being done to protect US consumers. So who should be taking responsibility – industry or the regulators?

Because the regulation of cosmetics is not as concrete in the US as it is in Europe, many critics claim this leaves gray areas that can, theoretically, jeopardize the health of the consumer.

In the US, cosmetics regulation falls under the governance of the Food and Drug Administration. Two important laws lay the foundations for the regulation, The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.

The Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits the marketing of adulterated or misbranded cosmetic products in the US, while the Fair Packaging and Labeling act requires manufacturers to declare ingredients, ‘allowing consumers to make informed purchasing decisions’.

Critics claim self regulation is not the key

These criteria would appear, in principle, to be far-reaching, but vocal critics of the cosmetics regulatory system claim that it boils down to self regulation, which allows some manufacturers to take advantage of the situation because they are ultimately responsible for substantiating the safety of their products.

“Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing,”​ the FDA states on its websites.

Amongst the most vocal critics of this approach to regulation are interest groups such as The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics, which has directed a highly vocal ongoing campaign highlighting the number of cosmetics products on sale in the US that contain potentially toxic ingredients.

Industry is quick to slam such criticism, charging that the facts on which the campaigns are based on can often be misleading or misguided.

Miniscule quantities spell minimal risk

In its defense, US industry body the Personal Care Products Council has cited the fact that any products containing ingredients said to be potentially toxic are often present in such miniscule quantities that they pose no risk to human health.

Meanwhile US industry has pointed out the fact that the regulation of personal care products in Europe is much tougher, suggesting that European consumers are better protected than their fellow American consumers.

The EU Cosmetics Directive was updated and introduced in January 2003 to ban the use of chemicals that could potentially cause toxicity, linked to both cancers and birth defects.

This move is said to have lent considerable protection to pregnant women in Europe, particularly in the light of a growing body of evidence to suggest that concurrent use of a number of personal care products with potentially toxic ingredients can be dangerous, even if those ingredients are present in tiny quantities.

Most recently a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that pregnant women who came into constant contact with hairspray showed a two- to three-fold increase in the rate of hypospadias, a defect that affects the development of a male baby’s genitalia.

State of California leading the way

In the US the state of California has been the most reactive regarding this matter, passing a Bill in 2005 to ban the use of potentially toxic ingredients for use in personal care products.

Many US industry players claim that this move has set a precedent for all national suppliers of cosmetics products, who are formulating their products to fall in line with the California Bill because it is a market that is too big to miss out on.

In the same vein, it is also stressed that many companies are formulating personal care products for global markets, which in turn means that these products must comply with European regulations.

Pregnancy is another kettle of fish

However, when it comes to the protection of mothers-to-be, it often seems that a different and much stricter set of rules apply.

The French government’s plan to introduce specific labeling of personal care products for pregnant women has already turned industry heads and if it does become law it is likely to set a precedent in Europe.

Such a precedent is also likely to draw further attention to perceived shortfalls in the regulation of personal care products in the US.

This means that if the regulatory authorities are not prepared to make further changes, industry should, at the very least, ready itself for another barrage of criticism.

Simon Pitman has specialized in business journalism for over 12 years and has focused on the cosmetics industry for the past four years.If you would like to comment on this article please email simon.pitman ‘at’

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