Dr. Laura Johnson
8 December 2017
Browsing the gondolas, swatching eyeshadows, and being color matched; these are all part of a typical experience at a cosmetics store. Men and women alike enter these stores with the desire for the new and exciting releases that their favorite influencers have talked about. At this moment in time, the demand for cosmetics is at an all-time high. Social media outlets such as YouTube and Instagram have helped to make this happen. Being a popular influencer on one of these websites has proved to be quite the lucrative career, with some making upwards of $900,000 a year. Through the promotion of brands, collaborations, and sponsorships, they build a career based on what they can sell to the consumer (us). This social media craze has also allowed for individuals to create what is known as “indie brands” to sell cosmetics that they have developed. Browsing Instagram alone will allow for the discovery of dozens of “indie brands” who sell handmade cosmetics out of their own homes. Companies like TKB Trading, LLC, who sell dyes, mica, and pigments in bulk allow for the production of cosmetics without going through a lab. While on one hand this has allowed for individuals to create their own businesses, there is no way to regulate what they are selling. Many indie brands have come under fire because of reactions that customers have had to their products. Other companies have had to deal with outrage over mold growing in the products they sell due to the lack of proper preservatives. However, the lack of regulation that is so commonly associated with smaller brands isn’t unique only to them; cosmetics in general are poorly regulated. From makeup to skin care, many of the products that are commonly used contain traces of dangerous metals or ingredients that are banned in several countries. Many companies also proudly boast that they are cruelty free, while animal testing isn’t required in many countries, it still occurs. Even companies who claim to be cruelty free have had their participation in animal testing revealed to the general public. So, with industry as tumultuous as cosmetics, how do we really know what we are using?
As far as we know, the use of cosmetics can be traced back for about 6000 years. Proof of the use of cosmetics can be traced to almost culture on earth. This timeline is supported through the evidence found that suggests that Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens used red dyes for ritualistic purposes in Africa (Watts, 392). The use of cosmetics and skin care has been accounted in various documents over the years. Ancient Egyptians used scented oil as perfumes and protection from the windy climate of the area they lived in. Pigments made from various metals were also used by Egyptians to enhance their features. The dark defined eyes that we often associate with Cleopatra was created with kohl. Around 3000 B.C.E. evidence shows that people in China used a blend of natural ingredients to stain their finger nails. The color worn was based on social status. Different levels of a royal family wore different colors, while impoverished people were forbidden from wearing a color. The ancient Greeks, who were big fan of all things theatrical, used white lead as a means of whitening their complexions. Berries were used as rouge, and animal hair was used to accentuate features as well. Many cultures used different ingredients to create white face paint over the years, including the Japanese and Chinese around 1500 B.C.E. (Huo, 1). Around 100 AD Romans seemed to have an emphasis on skin care, using herbs and other products as a way to treat acne and manage complexions. Hair dyes were being produced in India as early as 300 AD (Olson, 296). Face powders in Elizabethan England gained popularity, using a mix of lead and sometimes arsenic, women powdered their faces in hopes of appearing fair skinned and youthful (Little 1). So, cosmetics have been widely used for thousands of years, and have always had a place in popular culture.
As described above, historically, metals, lead, and arsenic have been used as cosmetics or in cosmetics. Even during Elizabethan times the harmful chemicals that were present in the cosmetics were heavily criticized for their effects. There was a rise in skin conditions, facial tremors, muscle paralysis, and death among young women. However, cosmetics containing these poisons and other harmful chemicals were still used. These practices carried on through the 19th century, where it was encouraged that women consume tins of arsenic wafers that boasted skin perfecting properties. It wasn’t until 1938 that federal government in the United States started to regulate the cosmetics used. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gave authority to the FDA is regards to the regulation of cosmetics (Junod, 1). With that in mind, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to believe that the cosmetics that we use no longer contain harmful ingredients. However, that would be false. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gave the FDA a few responsibilities in regards to cosmetics. First, they are to hold routine inspections of factories and manufacturer plants where cosmetics are made. They are to prevent the sale of misbranded products. Finally, they are to remove products from the market if the products contain unsafe ingredients (FDA). However, what the FDA does not do is approve and inspect the products themselves. Unless notified, they wouldn’t know what the product contains. All products are to have ingredient labels on both the box, as well as websites to ensure that their ingredient are FDA approved. However, what is considered a harmful ingredient by most standards, may not be considered harmful by the FDA. For example, parabens are often used as a preservative. This is to prevent the growth of bacteria that can be harmful when used on the skin. However, the prolonged use of parabens has been tied to an increased risk of breast cancer due to its estrogen mimicking properties. Another chemical that is commonly used as a preservative is formaldehyde. However, formaldehyde has been categorized as a carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC). The use of formaldehyde has been linked to skin conditions, allergic reactions, and nasal cancers. These two chemicals are just two of hundreds of harmful chemicals that are commonly used in cosmetic production. They are deemed safe enough for use and therefore have never been intercepted by the FDA. Aside from the chemicals that aren’t deemed harmful by governments, what about the ingredients that aren’t listed? A study by the Environmental Defence in Canada surveyed the makeup bags of six women to see what their most used products contained. This included extremely popular brands such as Benefit, MAC, Laura Mercier, and Urban Decay. The use of metals in cosmetic production is banned in Canada, however all but one of the products tested contained traced of metals. The metals of concern that they tested for were arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, beryllium, thallium, and selenium. According to Environmental Defence, the concentration of metals varied from the minimum testing detection limit to 100 ppm (Nnebe 9). There isn’t a minimum concertation that is considered safe because the products are being applied to the face and can either be ingested or absorbed though skin. Seven of the eight metals that were being tested for were found in the makeup products, though the levels of concentration varied from product to product. All of the metals mentioned are associated with adverse health effects, but arsenic, cadmium, and lead are the most concerning because they have been deemed toxic in Canada due to their effects. Of the mentioned chemicals, arsenic was found present in 20% of the products tested. Cadmium was detected in 51%, and finally lead was detected in 96% of the makeup products that were tested. Most of the products tested contained more than one of the harmful metals, with Benefit Cosmetics Benetint Lip Paint containing all of the metals except mercury (Martyn 12). Some of these metals were found in extremely high quantities, however, none of the metals were listed on the ingredients list on the product or the website. Because federal agencies do not do routine laboratory testing of cosmetic products, this goes almost completely unnoticed. Another issue with regulation is how it is enforced. In 2015, popular makeup brand Lime Crime came under fire after one of their top selling products, Super Foils, started to rust in the pans and develop mold. The year before that Glitter Injections pressed glitters had a similar situation, where the product began to become discolored and moldy. Though both of these situation were reported to the FDA and Better Business Bureau, the products continued to be sold. What was found is that both of these products lacked a preservative which was why they began to develop rust and mold. At this point in time, anyone can create a cosmetic product and sell it with the help of social media. However the ingredients in these products have the potential to harm those who use it because lack of regulation is the cosmetic industry.
One of the biggest steps that the cosmetic industry has made as of late, is the step toward being cruelty free. Many brands boast that they are cruelty free or vegan, however, this is not always exactly true. Many countries do not require animal testing for their products to be approved, however if a brand wants to sell to a certain market, it will have to comply with that markets regulations in order to sell their products there. While many brands who sell makeup in the United States and Canada, do not participate in animal testing for these markets, they do so to sell in the Chinese market. In order for animal testing to occur, test subjects are needed. Most of the animals that are used in testing are bred for this purpose. Both vertebrae and invertebrates are bred for these purposes (PETA 1). Animal testing for cosmetics was first implemented in the 1940s, at this time in history, people had prolonged exposure to beauty products that contained harmful ingredients. As a way remedy this trend, animal testing was introduced. Today, animal testing is no longer needed, as plenty of alternatives have been discovered. At this time, formulas are often slightly altered, but not changed. So constant testing is no longer needed because the ingredients used have already proven to be safe (NAVS, 1). The number of animals that are still used in testing is over 20 million, even though many markets, including the European Union, have banned the sale of cosmetics that are tested on animals. Animals are bred to supply the demand for test subjects, live in cramped conditions, and are often subjected to cruel practices even outside of times they are being tested on. Even though many consumers have expressed interest in cruelty free products, millions of animals are tested on each year. The most common animals that are tested on are small rodents and fruit flies. The tests vary from acute toxicity determination, which is administering an ingredient over a prolonged period of time to observe its results, to testing how ingredients affect reproductive ability. There are laws in place to ensure that the lab animals are treated humanely for the duration of their lives, however the practice of testing leaves the animals in a constant state of stress (NAVS 1). Most of the animals that are used in testing are specifically bred for the purpose, however wild animals are still caught and sold to labs today. It is not a common practice to test on wild animals because of the breeding programs but it is an event that still happens. So, why, with the demand for cruelty free makeup and lack of demand for animal testing, do cosmetic companies still test on animals? Anti-vivisection activists have been asking this same question as of late.
With the cosmetics industry being as booming as it is, we should be aware of what we are supporting and using. Our government structures have proven time and time again that they will not regulate our products as heavily as they need to be. Generally speaking, we usually fall within the circle of concern of our government, however in regards to harmful materials being present in our health and beauty products, it seems as if we are not. We are constantly being exposed to these hazardous materials because of the laws that are currently in place. Aside from toxic ingredients like formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) being deemed safe enough for use on our skin, other toxic materials are present in the products but aren’t labeled. The FDA should be testing all products that are sold to customers to ensure that hazardous material are not present. As previously mentioned, we don’t fall into the circle of concern in this instance, which is a new idea. However, the exploitation of animals is not. As with factory farming, animal testing is done on a massive scale. Millions of animals are subjected to these tests every year, with many dying in the process. Animal testing first became a requirement during the 1940’s as a solution to the problem of toxic materials in makeup. It allowed for the development of cosmetics that would no longer be harmful to humans. However, animal testing is a practice that is outdated and relatively useless in present times. Because formulas are often replicated and only slightly changed, they are all considered relatively safe and do not require testing. There are also alternatives that do require neither a human nor an animal to obtain results. As consumers, we must be aware of what we are supporting. Many cosmetics pose significant health threats, as well as have a history of animal abuse. We must demand that the FDA test all cosmetic products that are sold to the general public whether they are indie brands or high end. We must also, as a society, extend our circles of concern to animals so that they are no longer subjected to such cruel practices. This affects our health as well as environment by the capturing of wild animals to the poisoning of people.
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