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By Fraser Hill, Founder and CEO of Skinega.
In 2017 the Personal Care Products Safety Act was read in the Senate to amend the FDA act of, wait for it, 1938. Yep, it’s kind of like the keto diet; takes a little time to get things moving. But don’t get too excited; the bill hasn’t been passed and may never be, but that hasn’t stopped some in the beauty community raving about this incredible breakthrough that will change the industry forever (or not as my sarcastic tone may infer). However, fear not, a somewhat similar act was proposed a year later, namely the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act, 2018. Yeah, it’s probably going to take some time to never get passed too, but it’s okay, as in the meantime we can all live off hope and believe we’re doing good by saying we support it. I’m sorry, but these acts are barely worthy of any support.
Please don’t get me wrong, the overall intention of these acts is commendable, but the detail and content falls so far short of the mark. They need to do way better than this because consumers simply deserve better. While consumers are falling over each other trying to get the latest organic and natural products, which often aren’t even natural or organic, it is them who are affected by these weak attempts at reforms. The proposals may bring the 1938 act into one of the decades of the 20th century, but in the 21st century, after 80 years, they are not fit for purpose, and more radical reforms are required.
Of course, consumer safety should be the number one concern, and that’s what these acts are primarily there to address, but one of the questions is, why has it taken so long for these reforms to even come to the table? In my opinion, nobody has ever bothered because they haven’t had to until now. The large skincare companies pre-dating the indie-beauty movement and social media were probably comfortable with the public assuming that the FDA regulates the cosmetics and skincare world (which for the most part, it doesn’t). This assumption probably made consumers question nothing about some of the products they were purchasing.
Social media has changed everything. Companies are held more accountable, and consumers, in general, are becoming much savvier. The indie beauty world has also sprung up, along with far greater awareness of ingredients and transparency. It’s so interesting to see the larger established skincare giants reacting with their new “clean” products and their investments into indie beauty brands like it was something they’d planned all along. No, it wasn’t. They’re reacting to consumer demand, driven by better awareness and greater choice provided by indie brands. They should have been taking charge of this years ago, to make sure we didn’t have to wait 80 years for such legislation to even be considered. Every cloud has a silver lining though. Big beauty’s neglect of the consumer in this regard has left a gap for indie beauty to fill, which should never have been there. It’s a bit like the impact fintech startups are having on banking. It is the large banks neglect and failure to innovate that led to the gap that allowed these challenger banks to emerge.
So, as boring as it is to be discussing political proposals, the conversation has to take place as what is happening is shameful, yet so typical of today’s society. People just read a headline about some act being passed, and without so much as a second glance, they jump on the bandwagon supporting it, regardless of how weak and ill-fitting it is for the cause. Consumers need to know at least enough to reach their conclusions, because with all of these skincare companies coming out just saying, “we support this act,” I’m just blown away. Really? You support it? Nothing else to say? No suggestions on how it falls short or could be improved? I think these acts are a disgraceful attempt at bringing reform to this industry. “Disgrace” is quite a strong word, but I don’t use it lightly.
Without boring you into a state more debilitating than a carb coma, I want to cover off some highlights as to why I take this strong view. I’ll only address the first act in this article. I’d encourage you, if you’re interested, to read the other 2018 act in your own time and see what you think.
The Personal Care Products Safety Act 2017, introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J,) was set to reform regulation of personal care products, making changes to the 1938 United States Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). For starters, the archaic FFDCA act pays so little attention to the “Cosmetic” part of the title. It’s more like the Food and Drug Act, with some cosmetics regulation thrown in there for good measure.
In it, it suggests that “The FDA must review the safety of at least five cosmetic ingredients each year.” Okay, so after 80 years of no new reforms, there’s a bit of a backlog of potentially dangerous ingredients lurking in our products. Fear not, FDA to the rescue. Cue the Nancy Pelosi clap.
Five. That’s it? With reports citing the US banning upwards of 1300 fewer ingredients than European authorities (Source: Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament)), at this rate it will take 300 years to get through the backlog. For the record, I don’t’ believe the number is as much as that, but still, five a year doesn’t cut it. Why aren’t they just making a call to review every ingredient banned by any credible international country that isn’t currently banned in the US, within a year or another more realistic timeframe? Surely this would be a more meaningful and complete commitment.
In the act, they write about setting up a consultation group “including individuals from the cosmetic industry.” That’s how we got into such a mess with big pharma. Why are big cosmetic companies invited to consult with the FDA about which ingredients are safe and which are not? Ingredient safety shouldn’t be a debate. Ingredients are either deemed safe, or they’re not. That’s what the FDA is meant to do – govern the industry, not ask the industry what it thinks. The only consultation that should be taking place is in the gathering of ingredients used in cosmetic production. The FDA should then do their job and report back to consumers on which ones they’ll ban. Otherwise, it will be like:
FDA to industry: “Hey industry, should we ban these ingredients everyone is banging on about?”
Industry: “No, they’re fine FDA, don’t worry about it. Don’t listen to them. Just tell everyone it’s all good”.
Section 610 discusses good manufacturing process for cosmetics and how they will commit to reviewing international best practice in manufacturing to establish and enforce guidelines. So, wait, this hasn’t been done already? The FDA currently pays no attention to any international standards for cosmetic production? That’s a little concerning.
Section 614 discusses labeling. This was, in my view, a tremendous opportunity to address the abuse that exists in the skincare world, and in particular the use of terms like natural, organic, clean, and toxic. I’ve written a whole other article on that so won’t repeat myself here (https://skinega.com/skincares-abused-terms/), but consumers are drowning in misinformation about what they’re buying. When consumers purchase an organic product, it should always be organic in my view. Not slightly organic, or made with organic extracts. There should be no ambiguity about what consumers are purchasing, and with these four highly abused terms alone, the skincare industry is about as transparent as a clay mask pasted onto a brick wall. Section 614 only commits to warning specific populations to avoid using certain products, like children or pregnant women for example. Then it goes on to address products for professional use, but not a single reference to products sold in the public domain, which is where the abuse of consumer is out of control.
Section 616 discusses animal testing. It is probably the least committed and most hypocritical part of the proposed reforms. In it, it says,
“To minimize the use of animal testing for safety of cosmetic products, the FDA shall: 1) encourage the use of alternative testing to a) not involve the use of an animal to test a chemical substance for safe use in cosmetics or b) use fewer animals than conventional animal-based tests for safe use in cosmetics when non-animal methods are impracticable.”
Note the language “encourage” has far lesser implication than “insist” or “enforce.” They’re proposing to either a) “don’t use animals” or, b) “if you do, can you use less of them please?”. Perfect. “Yeah Sandra, listen, you know we normally use 50 rabbits when testing? Sorry, letter from the FDA here. Yep, we’re going to have to start using 49 otherwise the FDA will do absolutely nothing to us as there’s zero enforceable action in their new bill.”
That’s not the worst part of the animal testing section though. That title goes to this:
“(b) GUIDANCE.—Not later than three years after the date of enactment of the Personal Care Products Safety Act, the Food and Drug Administration shall issue guidance on the acceptability of scientifically reliable and relevant alternatives to animal testing ….”
Okay, so we don’t even have the act passed yet, and they’re making a remarkably swift commitment that, after three years from when this bill may finally be passed, the FDA shall issue guidance on “relevant alternatives to animal testing for the safety of cosmetic ingredients.” One would think, given that the FDA also insist, by law, that all new pharmaceutical drug releases are tested on animals, and that they’re one of the USA’s largest users of animals for testing, that they would have some awareness of what these alternatives may already exist.
It gets worse, because the research I’ve done indicates that they do indeed know quite a lot about it already. In 1997, the FDA joined with thirteen other Federal agencies in forming the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM). ICCVAM and its supporting center, coordinate the development, validation, acceptance, and harmonization of alternative toxicological test methods throughout the U.S. Federal Government (Source: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/scienceresearch/producttesting/ucm072268.htm).
So FDA, you’ve already been studying this for over 20 years. Why is this “commitment” to work this out over three years when you already should have more knowledge about this than perhaps any other government agency in the world? It lacks commitment and urgency like so many of the other points.
So, to any of my peers that think this a great act, I wholeheartedly disagree. Hopefully, if nothing else, this article may encourage anyone interested in clean, natural and organic skincare, to take more notice of what’s going on and come together as consumers to demand more as much more needs to be done. We run the severe risk of something being done that is not fit for purpose, yet people who don’t take a moment to form their own opinions, think progress is being made. Progress comes in many shapes and forms, but when we have the first opportunity in 80 years to make significant leaps forward, we should be doing all we can to maximize this opportunity, not just sitting back and celebrating that any old act has been committed to the government for review.
Please help to bring awareness to these issues by sharing this article if you agree with its content, or by just being an active part of the community that is looking to bring better transparency to our wonderful skincare and beauty industry.
WRITTEN BY FRASER HILL, FOUNDER, AND CEO, SKINEGA INC.
Fraser is the Founder and CEO of Skinega, Inc. He grew up and was educated in Scotland before going on to forge an 18-year career in executive consulting and research, living and working in London, Hong Kong, Poland, Canada, and in the US, working for companies including J.P. Morgan, as well as starting Consulting firms in Canada in 2008, and London in 2012. With his background in research and technology, Fraser embarked on a consumer-driven journey to seek out cleaner, vegan, more effective luxury skincare. He sought a “free from” list that went beyond just harmful ingredients to include ingredients that serve no purpose to skin’s wellbeing like synthetic thickeners, colors, fragrance, and other texture modifiers. His search was unsuccessful, so Skinega was developed over a two-year period, then formally established in 2017.