The Humane Cosmetics Act Highlights the Importance of Beauty Labeling

Jessica Ourisman

There's a long way to go when it comes to creating a more transparent cosmetics industry.

On Jan. 1 of this year, the 2018 Humane Cosmetics Act of California went into effect, banning the sale of cosmetics that have been tested on animals. Both Illinois and Nevada signed equivalent bills, with federal-level legislation to possibly follow in the not-too-distant future. While this represents an incredible milestone for the animal welfare community, as the United States takes a big step toward joining the global community of cruelty-free nations, the significance is also largely symbolic.

"It is worth noting that testing cosmetics on animals is extremely rare, as the industry moved away from this inhumane practice almost a decade ago," points out Mia Davis, Credo's Director of Environmental & Social Responsibility. Some exemptions will legally remain — as in the case of drugs like sunscreen, ingredients that were grandfathered in from previous testing or industries, as well as ingredients with special safety concerns — but the efforts initiated by California, Illinois and Nevada should ensure that all cosmetic products sold will be cruelty-free as of Jan. 1. "Brands are not going to make a cruelty-free version for California and another one for the rest of the country, of course," reasons Davis.

The HCA's passage also hints at progress toward beauty reform, specifically when it comes to the regulation of labels. The politics of beauty labels — regarding animal cruelty, but also consumer health — are heated. Policy loopholes can result in considerable miscommunication between beauty brands and their customers. For example, a lack of uniformity between designating organizations allowed so-called cruelty-free brands (some that publicly denounced cosmetic animal testing, like Caudalie and Urban Decay) to legally sell to China's mainland market, where up until January, this resulted in mandatory cosmetic animal testing abroad.

Should it pass, the federal-level HCA will address this type of discrepancy. Victoria Katrinak, Manager of Animal Research & Testing at The Humane Society of the United States, shares, "The new HCA language ... would prohibit a company from putting a cruelty-free label on their product if it was tested...to satisfy foreign testing requirements." She adds that although state-level legislation does not address labelling directly, companies can no longer use "outsourced" data derived from animal-testing abroad in order to substantiate the safety of their ingredients.

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Why does this matter? Because past experience proves that transparency is sorely lacking when the industry is left to self-regulate. Misleading marketing vis-a-vis ambiguous or inaccurate labels remains a rampant problem, calling the government's hands-off, pro-business approach into question. Yet a growing body of evidence and consumer demand is pushing the industry in the direction of more stringent regulations regarding the ethical baseline in beauty.

Several ethical dilemmas presently stem from a lack of label oversight. Among nail polish brands, complaints of "green-washing" target those brands that purport to exclude the "bad chemicals," indicating these omissions with "n-free" labels. But with no legal definition specifying which ingredients are toxic, some brands are taking liberties in how they label their formulas. A seven-free polish can effectively be "cleaner" than its 10-free, or even 16-free, counterpart due to these inconsistencies in nail polish labels that leave consumers on their own to do extensive brand and ingredient research.

The recent documentary Toxic Beauty depicts another political battle over beauty labels; namely, Johnson & Johnson's decades' long resistance to print warning labels on products containing talc. In spite of evidence linking talc's contamination by the carcinogen asbestos to cases of ovarian cancer in lifelong customers, the company rigidly stands behind sponsored studies to defend the safety of its products. "In truth, one would have to have a product tested in an unbiased lab and know the formulation, and combinations of chemicals that interact with each other, in order to really know what's in your [beauty] product, according to most of the experts in our film," says Phyllis Ellis, director of Toxic Beauty.

Another oft-cited regulatory loophole permits hidden phthalates (which have been shown to be potential endocrine disrupters) to go undisclosed in products listing synthetic fragrance as an ingredient. Consumer watch groups have arisen to make up for the lack of governmental oversight, with organizations like Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group raising awareness and advocating for change. Without private efforts by these consumer groups, we would be left to navigate an industry that is packed with undisclosed and hidden carcinogens, endocrine-disrupters, and toxins found in our beauty and personal care products.

"'Safest' [likely means] don't use anything with the word 'fragrance' or 'parfum' on the label because those words alone can indicate hundreds of chemicals, [some of which are harmful]," states Ellis. "Talc, asbestos, mercury, lead… Why are any of these in products we put on our skin, hair, lips?" And why, considering the deleterious impact this has on public health, are responsible retailers, brands, experts, and advocacy groups left to fight the battle for wellness in beauty alone?

According to Jessica DeFino, a beauty journalist who covers cosmetic regulation, "Most labels in the beauty industry are nothing more than overblown marketing terms; very few are regulated." [Editor's note: DeFino is also a frequent Fashionista contributor.] She explains how these ethical issues arise when brands use words with vague definitions in order to impart a false sense of consumer security. DeFino points out that words and labels with concrete definitions (i.e. "vegan," "oil-free") raise fewer red flags. However, labels with ambiguous definitions like "clean," "green," "non-toxic," "organic" and "natural" — none of which are legally defined — allow brands to take advantage of health-minded consumers who feel falsely reassured of the product's safety. In reality, the lack of regulatory oversight renders these colloquial terms meaningless. (There is a bill seeking to legally define the term 'natural' for this very reason.)

The perils of labeling do not stop there, yet the matter is complex. On the one hand, DeFino points out that a sense of safety is largely subjective and that the government might not be the appropriate entity to make such determinations. "Should the government get to decide what those mean?" she asks, "Probably not… And even if they did, brands would find a way around it, coming up with new unregulated labels to slap on a bottle."

Experts tend to agree that the government's role via legislation like the HCA is to establish an ethical baseline for the industry, and also agree that reform is urgently needed. "The law that governs the approximately $90 billion beauty industry is from 1938 and is only one and a half pages long," Davis emphasizes, adding that, "it allows carcinogens in baby shampoo."

The need for improved beauty ethics has changed the entrepreneurial landscape, with the efforts of individual retailers, brands and groups arising to educate the public. In such a competitive market, it takes courage to take a public stance to formulate and sell only those products deemed non-toxic by the research. This is why clean beauty advocates emphasize transparency as a fundamental tenet of the movement.

With the industry taking a long-due stance on behalf of animal welfare, perhaps this next decade will see similar progress made in the name of human welfare, too. "We're talking about safety and health of millions of Americans who use these products," writes Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) of the aforementioned Natural Cosmetics Act. "My bill will set the standard for 'natural' personal care products and do right by American consumers by putting transparency first." So far that's two labels addressed — 'cruelty-free' and 'natural' — how many more do we have to go?

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