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The SCA of 2011: An Interview with Stacy Malkan

Last summer, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 was a heated topic.  There were those who made the issue consumer protection and safety into a "government vs. small business" type of issue when it was anything but.  When the bill was introduced, I made no secret that I was a strong supporter of the new guidelines. 

I was fortunate enough then to be able to speak with Stacy Malkan about this issue back then.  Stacy is the co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty IndustryI am pleased to have been able to speak with her once again about the newly introduced Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011

Thank you to Stacy for stopping by and taking the time to speak with my readers about this very important issue!

Karley: Would you briefly explain to our readers why H.R. 2539 (The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011) is so important?

Stacy: Current cosmetic regulations are from 1938 and allow chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities and other illnesses to be put into body-care products with no required safety studies. We need to modernize the law and bring the FDA into the 21st century so it can do the job Americans expect it to do of ensuring the safety of the products we put on our bodies.

Karley: Last summer, I spoke with you about my own feelings on the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 and why I felt it needed to be passed. What is the main difference between the 2010 and 2011 versions?

Stacy: We're very pleased with the new version of the bill. The bill sponsors worked hard to address the concerns of small businesses and ensure the bill is workable and helpful for small businesses. Most notably, the bill exempts small businesses from fee and registration requirements, and clarifications were made to the labeling and contaminants sections. Here’s more information about the bill will impact businesses, including a chart of changes that were made from the previous bill:

Karley:  As a mom, I get especially frustrated when I see "natural" baby products full of toxins when you look at the list. When you look at the ingredients, though, you see most are anything but. What bothers you as a consumer the most about the cosmetics industry as it is now?

Stacy: It's outrageous that products labeled "pure" "gentle" and "for sensitive skin" -- including baby shampoos -- contain carcinogens and allergens, which are often not even listed on labels. Consumers are being deceived by this industry big time. The good news is that there are many wonderful companies making safe products, but it's challenging for consumers to find the best products in this unregulated "anything goes" market. The Safe Cosmetics Act will level the playing field for companies and give consumers the information they need to make the best choices.

Karley:  A comment I hear often is that our cosmetics are already safe--that we live in the United States and the FDA makes sure our products are safe. Is this true?

Stacy:  The FDA has very little authority to do anything to ensure safe cosmetics. In the US, it is legal for companies to put nearly any chemical into personal care products with no required safety studies. FDA can't even require recalls of unsafe cosmetic products. For example, when the Chicago Tribune discovered high, illegal levels of mercury in skin lightening creams, the FDA couldn’t take the products off the market.

Another example is Brazilian Blowout, a hair product found to contain high levels of formaldehyde. The product was banned in other countries last year but is still being used in salons across the US, because it's legal here for cosmetic companies to use unlimited amounts of formaldehyde, a chemical that is known to cause cancer.

Karley:  Last year, there was a huge uproar over the impact of the SCA and small businesses. I read a great piece by Rebecca Hamilton from Badger about how the current SCA is actually a good thing for small business. Would you agree?

Stacy:  Absolutely. I think this is one of the smartest bills we've seen in Congress in a long time. The Safe Cosmetics Act will make the fundamental changes necessary to modernize the FDA and shift the cosmetics industry as a whole toward safer ingredients, which will benefit everyone in the long run. At the same time, it protects small businesses, many of which are already making the safest products. 

There is a huge and vibrant small business community -- literally tens of thousands of people -- who are making their living or part of their living by selling personal care products. Many of them were motivated by their own health issues or because they couldn't find the quality products they wanted. This bill will ensure the continuation and growth of those economic opportunities.

Karley:  A point I keep hearing is that this is a matter of choice–that consumers can choose to avoid products with toxins in them. Something I notice frequently on this blog is that when I post about ingredients, people will write to me and say they had no idea that these things are in beauty products. I really believe that we’re not being our own best advocates here–many people simply do not understand the ramifications of what they apply to their skin. Is this simply a matter of choosing to avoid bad products?

Stacy: Consumers have no free choice in a market where it's legal for companies to hide the toxicity of their products and even the ingredients in them. The big companies are adamantly against transparency, and we expect this will be the key fight over the Safe Cosmetics Act. Some companies don't want to disclose fragrance ingredients and they don't want consumers to know about the contamination problems that are rampant with the outdated chemical formulas they are using -- for example, the fact that many children's bath products are contaminated with carcinogens like formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane. (

Q: I love artisan-made items, but I am very troubled when I am on Etsy or similar sites and look at the ingredients listings and see products are labeled with simply "paraben-free preservative" or "natural surfactant" without an actual ingredient being listed. Will the new guidelines affect small handmade sellers as well so full disclosure is followed?

Stacy:  Yes small sellers will still have to follow the rules and fully label their products. In the meantime, consumers have to be our own advocates. I encourage people to ask questions of these companies, demand to know what's in their products, and buy products only from companies you trust.

Karley:   If you had to list the 5 worst cosmetics ingredients still allowed in the USA today, what would they be?

Stacy:  It's hard to list just five! But here are some of the worst:

Formaldehyde -- The crazy high levels of formaldehyde found in hair straighteners in the US aren't allowed in other countries.

Formaldehyde releasing preservatives like quaternium 15 and diazlolidinyl urea -- there's no reason for companies to be using formaldehyde preservatives in 2011; there are many better options.

Coal tar -- this known carcinogen is still used in dandruff shampoos sold in the US

Hydroquinone -- a very nasty chemical used in skin lightening creams and some high-end face creams.

Fragrance -- a mix of mystery chemicals that is likely to include phthalates, which are linked to sperm damage and infertility. Until companies agree to disclose fragrance chemicals and phase out phthalates, it's wise to avoid any product with the word "fragrance" on the label.

What You Can Do:

A huge thank you again to Stacy Malkan for talking with us today! I also would like you to check out The Story of Cosmetics, a great video about the cosmetics industry. If you'd like to help make sure the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 passes, please click here to let your Congressman know that this is of importance to you.