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News / Health / Health Wire

Washington bill to ban harmful chemicals in cosmetics hits Gov. Inslee’s desk

By Vonnai Phair, The Seattle Times
Published: April 19, 2023, 11:17am

OLYMPIA — A bill that could be the strongest law regulating toxic chemicals in beauty and personal care products in the country is on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

House Bill 1047, sponsored by Rep. Sharlett Mena, a freshman Democrat representing Tacoma’s 29th legislative district, would end the manufacture, sale and distribution of cosmetic products containing nine chemicals or classes of chemicals — such as mercury, formaldehyde and “forever chemicals” known as PFAS — beginning in 2025.

It’s not just cosmetics like mascara and lipstick, Mena said, “but really any range of personal care products that everybody uses, including shampoo and conditioner, deodorant and sunscreen.”

People often apply these products every day “and we are talking about [toxins] we have studied before and that we’ve actually already banned in other products because we understand how harmful they are,” Mena said.

The bill also directs the Department of Ecology to study the hazards of ingredients that may be used as substitutes, and to assist small businesses in voluntary environmental health certifications designed to identify safer cosmetic products by May 2024.

Opponents of the bill — including the Association of Washington Business and the Personal Care Products Council — voiced concerns about the bill being enforced in retail stores, saying people selling cosmetic products may not know the chemistry of the products on their shelves. Manufacturers, on the other hand, would understand the chemistry, opponents said, and have advocated limits should be enforced at the manufacturing level.

Opponents also disagreed with formaldehyde-releasing agents being included in the bill’s definition of formaldehyde. These agents serve an important safety role for products as microbial ingredients, opponents said, and are not the same as formaldehyde.

The bill passed in the House largely along party lines, with four Democrats voting no and two Republicans voting yes. It passed in the state Senate along party lines with a 28-20 vote with one abstention. The bill passed a concurrence vote after returning to the House with amendments, before moving to the governor’s desk.

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Amendments to the bill require the Department of Ecology to provide a list of chemicals in cosmetics that release formaldehyde and may be subject to restriction under the bill. The department must identify a restriction of a maximum of 10 of those listed chemicals, to take effect on or after Jan. 1, 2026. Restrictions on remaining chemicals would take place on or after Jan. 1, 2027.

Criticism of the bill as it passed through the Legislature included the separate rule-making process the amendments would create for managing cosmetic products within the bill. Opponents advocated for the use of the Safer Products for Washington process, a program that already exists in Washington.

Recent research by the department found a widespread presence of toxic chemicals in cosmetics marketed to people of color, which is why Mena said she and other women of color in the legislature, including former state Sen. Mona Das, who originally sponsored the bill last session, took a personal interest in the bill.

People of color are disproportionately exposed to toxins in beauty products according to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. For example, the study found African American consumers purchase nine times more ethnic hair and beauty products than other groups. Using these products has been associated with increased risk of earlier first menstrual cycles and uterine fibroid tumors among African American women.

Beauty products rooted in “racist beauty standards that have been perpetuated in society,” such as light skin tones or straight hair, expose women of color to toxic chemicals through products like hair relaxers, hair styling gels or skin lighteners — “it’s like a double whammy,” Mena said.

The state’s research found formaldehyde in 26 out of the 30 body lotions and hair products tested. It also revealed unhealthy amounts of lead in eyeliners and lipsticks, and arsenic in dark-tint makeup powders.

The products identified in the state’s study as containing harmful chemicals include at least one intended for children and ten that did not list the hazardous chemicals as ingredients on the label.

At low levels, breathing in formaldehyde can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. At higher levels, exposure can cause rashes, shortness of breath, wheezing and affect lung function. Prolonged exposure can lead to cancer.

Lead exposure can slow children’s development and affect their learning, hearing and speech and can result in brain and kidney damage in adults. Both lead and arsenic have been linked to brain and nervous system damage and cancer.

“Forever chemicals” — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS — rank as one of the most pervasive sources of pollution on the planet. They are found in soil, air, water and even the snow of Antarctica. In a study published in 2021, researchers found 100% of the participating mothers had PFAS in their breast milk, providing more evidence these chemicals are building up in people. Exposure to the class of chemicals can cause cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma and thyroid disease.

Many of these chemicals are already regulated in other products.

For example, Washington’s Children’s Safe Product Act restricts the use of lead, cadmium and certain ortho-phthalates in children’s products, including cosmetics.

But it’s a different story for most cosmetics. Cosmetic manufacturers are not required by law to submit safety data on cosmetic ingredients in the United States, and Ecology has had limited authority to regulate chemicals in cosmetics.

“When we go to the store and pick up things we need, we are not scientists and toxicologists, so we just trust everything on the shelf is safe to us — and we’re pretty unsuspecting,” Mena said.

This bill aims to “shift the burden away from the consumer,” she said.