That’s a tough question! My short answer would be, if you’ve bought your cosmetics in the European Union (EU), you can certainly consider them safe. If you’ve bought them here in Canada, you can consider them mostly safe. If you’ve bought them in the USA, I would personally throw them in the trash (or become an expert label reader)! In an earlier blog, I talked about what Health Canada does to control cosmetics and compared that to the EU and the US. Read it here.
Now grab a coffee and a chair because tough questions don’t scare me! My long answer would have to factor in when ingredients are banned or restricted, scientific research, opinions and bias (industry influence, media coverage), contaminants, the type of risks we are willing to accept, how you use the ingredient, the amount of it in a product, available alternatives and whether we’re talking about human safety or environmental safety (not an exhaustive list!).
I can see your eyes glazing over already but stick with me. You can either do the work yourself, and believe me, it’s not easy, or you can do a little bit of work to find someone you trust to guide you. Maybe, even me! Either way, the only way to discern what is safe is for you is to be aware of all the factors.
You see, here in Canada, ingredients are banned or restricted only when its proven that they ARE harmful. This poses quite the problem as most companies aren’t going to spend the money to test this. The groups that care about ingredient safety often don’t have the funding to sponsor the research. So, we have to wait until there’s a number of reported incidents or there’s a public outcry about an ingredient that triggers Health Canada to consider performing a risk assessment. See Health Canada’s Hotlist. By contrast, in the EU, an ingredient has to be proven safe before it’s accepted for use.
New ingredients are only screened by Health Canada and there are a LOT of new synthetic ingredients coming out all the time.
So, what does science have to say about all of this? Not that much unfortunately. As I mentioned earlier, research is costly and someone has to foot the bill. There are some studies that are done but not published because the results were not "desirable". And there are studies published but all factors weren't controlled which makes them less reliable. When you’re reading information, ask yourself if the author has provided scientific references, not just referred to a “study”. Next, is the author and study creditable? Where has it been published? And sometimes it takes a scientist to point out the weaknesses of another’s research.
When there’s a lack of science, all you have to go on is opinions and hearsay. I think personal experience counts for something but I take it with a grain of salt. Is the source biased? Industry, media and other groups certainly can be.
Let’s use talc as an example (Health Canada is currently performing a risk assessment on it and it may soon be added to the Hotlist). “My Grandma used talcum powder all the time, but she never had lung problems or ovarian cancer, so it must be safe”. Whoa there! That’s a pretty big assumption. How much did Grandma actually use and how often? Where did she use it? Was it 100% talc or was it mixed with something? Did she avoid inhaling it? Did she still have her ovaries? Was she lucky? What about other Grandmas? You get the picture.
Contaminants are a tricky one. They may not be added intentionally so you won’t find them on the ingredient list. However, they can exist in an ingredient because of how its processed.
It also comes down to what we’re willing to accept as safe. If it causes allergies, dermatitis or skin irritation, some might be willing to take that risk but not those with sensitive skin. What if it’s been linked to cancer or hormone disruption? There’s a chance its responsible but there isn't enough evidence yet. What if it causes reproductive toxicity in rats but we don’t know the effect on humans?
This ingredient that you may be using, is it in a rinse-off or leave-on product? Rinse-off products will pose less of a risk. Where is it on the list of ingredients? If it’s near the end of the list, there’s less of it present. How often do you use it? Something you use every day would be more risk than something you use occasionally.
What if there are currently no alternatives to that ingredient? Does the convenience it brings outweigh the possible harm it could cause?
And finally, what if it’s safe for humans but harmful for the environment?
Phew! Are you still there? Awesome. Okay so now what? With all that in mind, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions. Is there a trusted reference you can use? Well, sort of. Here are the three I rely on most, but even they have their problems. You can use Safe Cosmetics but they are very conservative and make unvalidated claims. For instance, in oxybenzone (used in sunscreens) they say it causes cancer and refer to California’s EPA which states that it’s a “possible carcinogen”. They also refer to a study on feeding the oxybenzone to mice and rats to infer that topical use can lead to cancer in humans. They also rate ingredients as toxic when there’s not enough information and when the risk doesn’t affect the consumer (i.e., inhalation in manufacturing). There’s Cosmetics Info which has a safety section and sometimes outlines the status of the ingredient in other countries. However, this website is sponsored by the Personal Care Products Council which represents cosmetic companies. So, it might be a bit biased. Looking at oxybenzone again, they include ‘myth busting’ where they allege that the studies were misleading, generalize their major concerns and refer to other supporting studies. However, I find them weak and could shoot a few holes in their arguments myself. They even mention their greatest concern about banning this ingredient: it may result in fewer people using sunscreen and the risk for skin cancer (heard of zinc oxide?). There’s also Cosmetic Ingredient Review which is so scientific it may be difficult for most people to navigate.
That’s a whole lot to consider for a single ingredient!