What Do Our 1938 Cosmetic Regulations Actually Say?

You may have heard the statistics before: Europe has spent the last decade banning nearly 1,400 chemicals from personal care products, Health Canada 600 and in the United States, we’ve banned a mere 12… Our cosmetics safety laws haven’t been significantly updated since 1938, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was President—meanwhile the science has evolved to show that some of the ingredients commonly used in the beauty industry have been linked to harmful health outcomes.


Plain and simple, our laws regulating cosmetics and personal care products are weak, ineffective and are failing to protect our health from toxic chemicals. Here’s the skinny on the United States cosmetic safety law that dates back to 1938:

Self-regulated $62 billion cosmetics industry

As you may have gathered thus far, under the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, cosmetics companies are self-regulating. It is up to the company to decide if their products are safe, and then we as consumers of these products are left exposed to several harmful ingredients in the products we use on our skin everyday. The industry has been running wild, unregulated and still uses many harmful chemicals.

Safer products in the E.U., Wild West in the U.S.A.

Under the European Union’s Cosmetic Product Regulation, they have restricted nearly 1,400 harmful ingredients in cosmetics, whereas the United States has only banned 11. The number of substances restricted in the U.S. is misleading however, since one of those products is “bovine parts” and the levels of mercury “allowed” far exceed any sort of “safe” level. No cow in my cosmetics…? Ok. Thanks?

cosmetic regulations

Absurd levels of mercury allowed as a preservative

One of the other partially restricted 11 chemicals is mercury. We know that mercury is a harmful heavy metal, and that very low doses are very poisonous. That is why we advise women and children to limit their consumption of certain seafood and climate change advocates are pushing to close mercury-laden coal burning operations.

But here’s the deal, under the 11 “restrictions” mercury can be used as a preservative in cosmetics in concentrations, as long as it is less than 65 parts per million. To put this into perspective, the NRDC’s seafood fish guide recommends that the maximum level of mercury tested in fish is over .5 parts per million.

Ingredients must be listed, sort of

It’s common for people to say, “Well at least ingredients need to be labeled on cosmetics.” But that’s not entirely true or common practice. The FDA also doesn’t have any authority to punish companies who fail to list all ingredients…and they aren’t checking. Second, the infamous “fragrance loophole” allows companies to hide ingredients used to make fragrances and scents. This can mean dozens or hundreds of fragrance chemicals not being included on your ingredient list. More on the health impacts of fragrances HERE.

Colors used in cosmetics must be approved in the FDA

This is one of the few things the FDCA does actually do, it requires the use of all natural and synthetic colors to be approved by the FDA. This doesn’t however mean that those colors are safe. As Beautyconter discovered while making their color cosmetics – heavy metals contaminate a wide variety of color cosmetics, including designer department store brands and “natural” or “organic” brands. Not all natural ingredients are safe. Not all synthetic ingredients are harmful.

Most soaps are regulated as “synthetic detergents”

Today most soap isn’t regulated as an actual soap. If a soap or body wash is created according to the specifics in the Food and Drug Administration’s criteria, it needs to be regulated as a drug, not a cosmetic. For that reason, most of the body washes and soaps we use today are still regulated under the cosmetics law as a “synthetic detergent”.

Over 3,000 ingredients can be used in a “fragrance”

Fragrance is an ingredient listed on many cosmetics, lotions and shampoos. This seemingly simple word can be a cover of over 3,000 different chemicals. Cosmetic manufacturers purchase fragrances from “fragrance houses” and in most cases, the manufacturer doesn’t know what chemicals are used to make that particular scent. The use of chemicals like phthalates and others fragrance allergens are commonly used to create these scents. So manufacturers (and you) don’t know what is lurking behind that simple word “fragrance.” Only purchase personal care products from company’s who fully disclose all fragrance ingredients. Read more HERE about how to avoid common fragrance allergens.

Products can’t be moldy (ew!)

There is a provision that says products can’t be “adulterated” and is the provision that requires cosmetics that contain water, use preservatives. (Note: Aloe is 90% water and products that are based in aloe also need to be preserved). The law does not want products on the shelves (or sitting in your cabinet) to develop mold, yeast or bacteria. Keep in mind that without preservation – mold, yeast and bacteria grow quickly in products, within weeks.

Not only is this gross, it’s hard for companies to know how long a person will keep a product and use it. Here’s the problem: some preservatives are harmful, especially at high doses (they are designed to kill after all). Parabens are commonly used in cosmetic and personal care products and have been linked to hormone-disruption. Some companies seeking to protect their customers from contaminated products use food grade or less harmful preservatives like potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate and small amounts of phenoxyethanol.

Some essential oils have naturally preserving properties, but often can’t be a solitary preservation solution for companies. In addition, many people react negatively to essential oils, especially on the face and near the eyes. There are few long term studies showing health impacts of some essential oils and the impact on preservation beyond short term solutions. The use of preservatives is complicated and not perfect, but it’s so important not to take preserved products for granted. I am confident that we will see the next generation of effective, safer preservatives emerging in the coming years.

Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics describes the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel (CIR) as the “fox guarding the hen house.” Established in 1976, the CIR is an industry funded panel that has been tasked to review the safety of ingredients used in the beauty industry. Over the last four decades the CIR has only reviewed just over 10% of cosmetic ingredients and they have only found 9 ingredients that shouldn’t be used in cosmetics at any level.

Based on my research, the CIR has found several ingredients to be “safe as used” where there is a strong scientific body of evidence showing harm. Some include:

  • Benzylparaben
  • BHT
  • Butylparaben
  • Dimethyl phthalate
  • PEGs
  • DMDM Hydantoin
  • EDTA
  • Propylene glycol
  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Toluene

Products cannot be “mis-branded”

Ahhh, if only this part of the cosmetics law was actually followed! Unfortunately for many companies dedicated to full transparency, they are paying a price, even if it’s the right thing to do. Many natural and green brands are “misbranding” their products by hiding preservatives and ingredients by buying pre-preserved products. The terms “natural”, “organic” and “safe” are unregulated and can be used with no substantiation. I encourage people to shop with companies who clearly spell out how they define safety.

What does this mean for a company that is dedicated to full transparency of their ingredients? They will be perceived as ‘less safe’ than their competitors who are failing to tell the truth. All the more reason for us as consumers to ask hard questions.

Beautycounter What should I buy?

It’s a minefield and there is clearly a lot of work to be done to updated our broken cosmetics safety laws. There are several brands that are doing good work to create safe products, but one stands out for me. I work for Beautycounter, a company dedicated to creating safer, high performing products.

Take a moment to browse Beautycounter’s best sellers.

My five favorite Beautycounter products:

Lustro Face Oil #3 (luxurious face moisturizer and primer before makeup)
Nourishing Cleansing Balm (face wash and night cream)
Tint Skin and Retractable Complexion Brush (unsure what color you would be? Send me an email via my Contact Form and I can help match your colors)
Eyebrow Pencil
Nude Lip Sheer


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6 Responses to What Do Our 1938 Cosmetic Regulations Actually Say?

  1. diane April 24, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    Ever since my hisgschool English class read a book about animal testing of cosmetics (WHY? I dont know!) I have been disturbed by the entire cosmetic industry. This is an awesome look into a system that really needs to change!

  2. Cliff Travis April 30, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    Hi Lindsay — I loved your blog post about “What our 1938 cosmetic regulations actually say.” But I have a question after reading some (probably) pro-corporate propaganda. Here’s the quote from a statement on cosmeticsinfo.org (link below):


    “The U.S. and EU have slightly different ways of regulating the cosmetic and personal care industry, but both systems provide consumers with a high degree of safety. Some argue that cosmetics are more strictly regulated in the EU, citing recent actions taken in the EU to red flag or ban certain chemicals from use in cosmetics. However, an examination of Annex II of the EU Cosmetics Directive, a list of approximately 1,300 banned ingredients, reveals that a large number of those chemicals are not used and never have been used in cosmetics in the U.S. or Europe. For example, the EU list includes substances such as jet aircraft fuel, various petroleum refinery byproducts and carbon monoxide.”

    Do you know of anything that would help to elaborate here? The only thing that I could find is the reference below…

    Cosmetics Regulation in the United States and the European Union: Different Pathways to the Same Result

    Here are some additional links that you might find interesting. I discovered them during this same search…


    Important Cosmetic Industry Developments in the United States:

  3. Cliff Travis April 30, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    Another question that you could probably use as clarification in an upcoming post to your readers. According to CIR in the US:


    “CIR has completed safety assessments of over 2300 cosmetic ingredients, focusing on the ingredients most widely used in cosmetics. So, formal safety assessments are in place for the ingredients used in most products, but our work continues so that we may address all ingredients used in all products.”

    But according to the EWG:


    “In its near 30-year history, however, the industry’s panel has reviewed just 11 percent of the 10,500 cosmetic ingredients cataloged by FDA (FDA 2000). The 89 percent of ingredients that remain unassessed are used in more than 99 percent of all products on the market (EWG 2004a).”

    So if the CIR representative is correct about “formal safety assessments are in place for the ingredients used in most products” and the 1,300 ingredients mentioned above (in my previous message) are “not used and never have been used in cosmetics in the U.S. or Europe”, then how are our regs really that much different than those in Europe?

    • Lindsay Dahl May 23, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

      Hi Cliff, Thanks for your great comments and questions. The CIR is simply “assessing” cosmetic ingredients for safety, without any regulatory restrictions. The banned ingredients in cosmetics in the EU – yes some of them aren’t commonly used in the cosmetics industry, but many are. The EU system is far from perfect, but they have taken much more robust regulatory action restricting ingredients compared to the U.S. Even the 11 that are “restricted” in the U.S. aren’t full bans, nor do they necessarily protect public health. I hope this helps!


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