A toxic chemical ban signed into law in California will change the composition of cosmetics, shampoos, hair straighteners and other personal care products used by consumers across the country, industry officials and activists say.
The ban, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom at the end of September, covers 24 chemicals, including mercury, formaldehyde and several types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. All the chemicals are carcinogenic or otherwise toxic — and advocates argue they have no place in beauty products.
When the law takes effect in 2025, it will mark the first major action to remove toxic substances from beauty products in almost a century. Federal regulation of cosmetics has not been updated meaningfully since 1938, and only 11 ingredients in personal care products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. By contrast, the European Union bans more than 1,600 cosmetic substances and ingredients from cosmetics.
The California law, passed by wide margins in both houses of the legislature, “is a milestone for cosmetic safety in the United States,” said Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group, which was heavily involved in shaping the bill.
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The Personal Care Products Council, which represents big companies like Amway and Chanel, was hesitant but eventually supported the bill and worked directly with legislators on its final form. The industry’s buy-in will help give the California law national repercussions.
“If you’re doing business in the United States, you’re doing business in California,” said Mike Thompson, senior vice president for government affairs at the council. “I would assume that this would really, in many ways, set up a new standard.”
Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, another activist group, advocated strongly for the measure because many of the banned chemicals have been linked to breast cancer, said Janet Nudelman, the group’s director of program and policy.
For salon workers like Kristi Ramsburg, the bill could offer the peace of mind that comes from knowing her workplace is freer of toxics. Over the 20 years she’s worked as a hairdresser in Wilmington, North Carolina, Ramsburg has done hundreds of straightening jobs on her clients’ naturally frizzy hair. Performing the procedure known as a Brazilian Blowout three to four times a week exposed her to harsh and dangerous/toxic products including formaldehyde and phthalates.
She experienced “sore throats, dizziness. My vision changed, definitely,” she said. “You’d be almost crying at first.”
Studies dating to the early 1900s show that inhaling even small quantities of formaldehyde can lead to pneumonia or swelling of the liver. It’s been classified as a carcinogen, according to the FDA.
Ramsburg believes her exposure severely damaged her health. Over six years, she had surgeries to remove her gallbladder, ovaries and appendix. After her liver swelled dangerously, she suspected, based on medical consults and studies she read, that the formaldehyde she had been breathing for decades was to blame.
“I was just inundated with toxins constantly. I literally almost died,” she said.
Horror stories like Ramsburg’s are what motivated legislators, as well as the cosmetic industry, to support the California law.
Federal legislation that would have given the FDA more power to control or recall products containing the 11 federally regulated ingredients failed to gain traction in either chamber in recent sessions, despite the support of celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian.
Advocates say the inadequacies in federal regulation have been apparent for years. Current law does not require cosmetics to be reviewed and approved by the FDA before being sold to consumers. And the agency can take post-marketing action only if a cosmetic’s ingredients were found to be tampered with or its labeling is wrong or misleading.
The FDA couldn’t even intervene when asbestos was found in cosmetics sold at the youth-oriented Claire’s and Justice stores. In a 2019 letter, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote that his hands were tied because “there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety.” No action was taken.
FDA scientists moved to ban formaldehyde from hair straighteners as early as 2016, according to internal agency emails, but weren’t successful. A 2019 study by government investigators found that using hair straighteners was linked with a higher risk of breast cancer, which rose with increased use. The study also found that using permanent hair dye was linked with an increased breast cancer risk.
After the federal legislation stalled, advocates changed their focus to California. The Golden State’s liberal leanings made it a likely place to pass a bill, while its status as the world’s fifth-largest economy meant any new law would have national impact. That has previously been the case, as when California set its own limits on car emissions or demanded nutrition labels for restaurant menus.
“It plays that pivotal role nationwide and has such a large economy, and so much of the cosmetic industry has a huge base here,” said Rusch, of the California Public Interest Research Group. “This type of landmark legislation has the effect essentially of setting a national standard. That was our intent.”
The Personal Care Products Council was open to the ban since the chemicals on the list — after some pruning during negotiations on the bill — include only those already prohibited in the European Union.
“You don’t want a patchwork of rules, either around the country or around the world. You want consistency,” Thompson said. “A lot of our companies may be already there, because they’re designing products for the European Union. … It’s just simpler for them to put out one product versus two.”
In recent years, growing consumer demand for transparency in beauty products has led to the development of a “clean cosmetics industry” whose products make up about 13% of high-end sales, double the percentage four years ago, according to the market research company NPD Group.
Drug and department stores have also increasingly moved toward “clean” products. CVS in 2019 removed parabens, phthalates and chemicals that contain or can give off formaldehyde from its store-brand products.
Advocates argue that the state law will force all companies to provide transparency and consistency about what, exactly, is in the products consumers put on their hair and faces.
“In order to ensure and give assurance to the public that the worst of the worst stuff is out of cosmetics, we felt we really needed to standardize and to put that into statute,” Rusch said.