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News / Northwest

Washington could ban use of cancer-causing chemicals in makeup, hair care

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: January 25, 2023, 6:02am

SEATTLE — When Erika Schreder’s 13-year-old daughter came home from the salon, she had styling gel in her braids. The product, Shine ‘n Jam Extra Hold Conditioning Styling Gel, is sold at just about every beauty store.

But Schreder, the science director for nonprofit Toxic-Free Future, was disturbed to learn formaldehyde made up 0.2% of the product. That’s the highest level of the chemical found in cosmetics tested in a new state study.

A bill in Olympia to ban the use of chemicals in cosmetics died last year. But the Legislature appropriated $266,000 for the study to identify cosmetics marketed to or used by people of color, including adults and children, and test those products for potentially harmful chemicals.

Now, with the Department of Ecology report in hand, state lawmakers are making another run at it.

House Bill 1047, sponsored by Rep. Sharlett Mena, a freshman Democrat representing Tacoma’s 29th legislative district, could ban the use of harmful chemicals in cosmetics.

The bill would make Washington among the first in the nation to create sweeping protections for consumers related to cosmetics, and it could have a broader impact on the products sold across the country.

The legislation would end the manufacture, sale, and distribution of cosmetic products containing nine chemicals or classes of chemicals, beginning in 2025. It also directs Ecology to study the hazards of ingredients that may be used as substitutes, and to assist small businesses in voluntary environmental health certifications.

Meanwhile, the department is accepting public comment on proposed restrictions on toxic chemicals like per- and polyfluorinated substances and phthalates used in perfumes, electronics, vinyl flooring and drink packaging. Under the Safer Products for Washington Act, signed into law in 2019, the agency is working to eliminate toxics where safer alternatives are available.

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

And the chemicals identified in this bill also wash off people and go directly into wastewater, said Ashley Evans, of King County’s hazardous waste management program, in a legislative committee hearing last week. The county’s treatment plants are not capable of removing many of these chemicals. And as a result they ultimately end up in the environment and wildlife.

These chemicals are known to be harmful to human health.

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. 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.

It’s a different story for most cosmetics. Cosmetic manufacturers are not required by law to submit safety data on cosmetic ingredients in the U.S. And Ecology has had limited authority to regulate chemicals in cosmetics.

“We will go to the grocery store, or wherever we get our things, and we’ll pick these things up and just assume that they’re safe,” Mena said. “Assume that they’ve been tested and assume that they’ve been through some kind of vetting to make sure that they are safe to use, and they’re not.”

The Ecology report pulled back the curtain on the widespread presence of hazardous chemicals in cosmetics marketed to people of color.

Researchers purchased 50 cosmetic products, identified through conversations with community organizations, and tested them for heavy metals and formaldehyde at Manchester Environmental Laboratory from July to October last year.

They found formaldehyde levels high enough to cause allergic reactions in 24 products, like lotions and hair products. Ecology also found formaldehyde in children’s spray detangler and well-known products such as Olay Firming Night Cream.

Past studies summarized in the report also revealed the use of things like hair straightening products marketed toward Black women were associated with higher breast and uterine cancer risks. Black women also reported higher use of feminine hygiene products, like douches, which have been linked with higher levels of ortho-phthalates.

A lawsuit was recently filed in federal court in Illinois alleging a 32-year-old Black woman’s use of chemical hair straighteners over decades caused her uterine cancer.

“There’s racist beauty standards that we understand have infiltrated our society,” Mena said. “It’s been reinforced in many harmful and insidious ways. And then we’re selling products to people to sell them the idea of achieving a standard. And those products are sometimes more harmful than anything else on the shelf.”

And for many people of color, the report states, the negative impact of harmful cosmetics is compounded by other environmental and social factors.

Phase one of the study tested lipsticks, body lotions, hair products and powder foundations for heavy metals and preservatives that release formaldehyde. The second part is underway, looking at the presence of asbestos in blush, eye shadow, hair spray, body wash and nail products. It’s slated to be completed by June.

Mena filed the legislation in December, and it was the first bill heard by the House Environment and Energy committee this session.

She’s hopeful getting it in early will give it a leg up.

Last year, shampoo, makeup and other cosmetic manufacturers raised concerns about Washington state adopting regulations that don’t align with those in other states and countries.

Peter Godlewski, the director of government affairs for energy, environment and water for the Association of Washington Business, said the organization will oppose the legislation until a few changes are made. Godlewski said formaldehyde-releasing agents shouldn’t be classified as formaldehyde, and the bill should only be enforced at the manufacturer level, not retail.

If the bill doesn’t pass, there may be an opportunity to include the rule-making under Ecology’s Safer Products program, said Kimberly Goetz, legislative coordinator for Ecology. But the process would take at least another five years.

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A decade ago, Minnesota passed a law prohibiting the use of formaldehyde in cosmetic products like lotion and bubble bath marketed to children under 8 years old. California also has several laws that regulate cosmetic ingredients and labeling.

The European Union has regulated PFAS in cosmetics, as well as in other products.

The Ecology report highlighted that alternatives to the harmful chemicals are already in use by some companies. Credo, Sephora and BeautyCounter sell products intentionally made without most or all of the substances outlined in the report. Some also require regular testing for contaminants.

The Environmental Working Group created the Skin Deep Database for people to research the safety of their cosmetics.