New Policy and Green Chemistry: The Personal Care Products Safety Act Promises Safer Cosmetics

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Contributed by Yunejung Park, 12th grade student, Korea International School, Jeju

In 1933 Mrs. Brown in Ohio dyed her lashes with Lash Lure--a permanent mascara containing a chemical used to tan leather and clothes--which blinded her. Fifteen more women lost their sight and one lady died after Lash Lure treatments. This cosmetic accident led to nation-wide public campaigning by the Federal Drug Administration for new safety regulations, but it took a chemical scandal that killed more than 100 people across 15 states from the drug Elixir Sulfanilamide, and ensuing public outcry for Congress to pass the landmark Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

Since then, concerns for toxins in cosmetics have escalated as research findings detected toxic chemicals in personal care products used daily: FDA study of lipsticks found lead in all 400 samples; sunscreens contain oxybenzone that mimic estrogen; nail polish has toluene that can cause anemia and birth defects; and EU bans 1,378 chemicals in cosmetics whereas US bans 11. The seventy-seven year old bill is outdated and provisions need to be added but all earlier attempts to amend the bill have failed—however, a momentum equal to that of 1938 has now arrived.


In April 2015 a bill “to ensure the safety of cosmetics,” titled the Personal Care Products Safety Act was introduced. There have been enough press coverage, endless campaigning, and big market growth of natural and organic cosmetics worldwide to create a momentum. Probably awareness of sustainability is necessary for the future, and recognition that green is the next big enterprise for innovation and growth in the cosmetics industry created such a momentum. Nevertheless, the new bill will strengthen FDA’s authority to regulate ingredients in consumer products and require a review of five chemicals each year for safety. It would also grant FDA authority to recall products it deems harmful. The bill has created quite a buzz in the cosmetics industry.

It’s interesting how new policy parallels new science research. For example, Michigan State University announced investments for a new research center which will conduct basic and applied research on the safety and toxicology of ingredients for cosmetics as well as household goods. Another example concerns animal testing. In 2013 EU banned all animal tested cosmetics, as have Turkey, Korea, China, Brazil, Israel, India, and most recently Canada and Russia. As animal testing in beauty is outlawed, companies are investing in research for alternative methods. Unilever recently announced a partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency to invest in alternative safety testing for chemistry based products.

I regularly search online for information on cosmetics, and I’ve found that the caliber of research in cosmetics belies any prejudice that it’s somehow a “petty science,” for our everyday products result from very sophisticated science. For instance, hairspray consists of tiny polymer beads that must hold hair in place, and a NASA sponsored researcher in polymer molecular dynamics notes, "that's like taking a spot of glue and putting it between two huge steel levers and expecting it to hold the levers in place." The spray also must be resilient to humidity yet wash out of the hair. My favorite is the skin biologist who applies his former research of regression of feathers in birds to study human hair growth and loss. If policy change could harness such innovative research to create safer, greener products, I bet we will soon live in a world with less allergies, lower birth defects, cancer rates down….

I will soon be able to buy a shampoo or lotion without having to closely scrutinize the ingredients labels or double check my smartphone app database for toxic ingredients. Life will not only be healthier, but also smarter.

Yunejung Park  is a 12th grader from South Korea. She is the Founder and President of ChemClub at her school (ACS HS ChemClub member) since 10th grade.

Following independent research on toxic cosmetic ingredients in 10th grade, she has been campaigning for safe cosmetics through writing online: last summer she wrote a series of articles on history of toxic cosmetics for a smartphone app with a database on cosmetic ingredients, read by over 42,000 and received 250 likes.

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