1,300 Cosmetic Ingredients Are Banned in the United Kingdom, Compared to 11 in the United States—Here's Why
We'll get right to it: There are just 11 cosmetic ingredients banned in the United States. Comparatively, over 1,300 have been outlawed or restricted in the entire European Union—a staggering discrepancy with one specific explanation. "In the European Union, they take more of a precautionary approach, so if an ingredient is presumed to be hazardous, or thought to cause health harm, they'll restrict or prohibit it," says Nneka Leiba, Vice President of Healthy Living Science at the Environmental Working Group. "That's not America's approach. Here in the U.S., the laws haven't been updated since 1938."
Leiba says the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have the power or resources needed to appropriately restrict and prohibit ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products. "They can't issue a mandatory recall if a product causes harm," she says. "They don't have the authority. They can only give a strong recommendation to the company."
The ingredients that are most concerning and detrimental to health, Leiba says, are formaldehyde and lead acetate. "Formaldehyde is a very potent allergen and human carcinogen used in high concentrations in keratin straightening treatments," she says. "And lead acetate, a derivative of lead, is used in some hair dyes. Lead, as most people know, is a potent neurotoxin known to be in lead pipes and paint." These two chemicals are notorious toxins, but luckily, are in a small niche category of products. There are other potentially harmful chemicals that, while less potent than lead and formaldehyde, are more ubiquitous in personal care products—and that's what makes them dangerous, Leiba says.
"In small concentrations, these chemicals aren't necessarily harmful, but the truth of the matter is that we're using multiple products every single day, and not only are we being exposed to these chemicals through products we put on our skin, but also in other areas of our lives—the air we breathe, the food we eat. We're getting them in much higher concentrations than we should be," she says. Some of the chemicals that the EWG finds most concerning because of their prevalence, she says, are parabens, phthalates, oxybenzone, triclosan, and the ambiguous term "fragrance." "Parabens are a group of preservatives that are used in a wide range of products," Leiba says. "They're endocrine disruptors, meaning they're linked to hormone disruption, which is linked to so many things—infertility and thyroid disease, as just a few examples."
Phthalates are plasticized chemicals that are also endocrine disruptors and can also affect the reproductive system, Leiba says. (Same goes for oxybenzone, a controversial ingredient in chemical sunscreens, along with triclosan, a prevalent component in antibacterial products. The FDA recently banned it in hand soaps, but it's still available in other cleaning and personal care products.)
Fragrance is concerning because companies are allowed to use this term to hide the ingredients that make up a particular scent. In a nutshell, this means there can be up to 4,000 ingredients hiding behind the word "fragrance" that consumers are unaware of, Leiba says. "The EWG is not against a scented product—we have no problem with that," she says. "It's when you see the word 'fragrance' on a label and the brand isn't disclosing what's in that fragrance mixture. We recommend looking for a product that discloses the ingredients that make up that fragrance."
Leiba acknowledges that it can be overwhelming for people to drastically alter their products and lifestyle. She says any small changes you can make to reduce a chemical overload is beneficial. "Look at your life and the products you use over and over again, and then make small changes," she says. "At the end of the day, we're trying to lessen the body's burden. Any change you make is helpful."