Updated: Jul 23, 2019
On average, a woman uses 12 skincare and cosmetic products containing 168 unique ingredients every single day, according to the Environmental Working Group. Most of these products contain endocrine disrupters, which can affect hormonal balance and fertility. Some even contain ingredients with clear links to cancer.
I believe more women need to know this information as we put them on our face and lips, we touch or kiss our kids with them every day without knowing some of them might not be safe for us.
A huge problem in the regulation on personal care products
Think ingredients with proven harmful effects are regulated in personal care products? Think again. A product can go straight from manufacturing to store shelves without any type of approval or mandatory safety testing in the first place.
In Singapore, the Health Science Authority (HSA) regularly performs sample testing on cosmetic products (including skincare and toiletries) marketed locally. Prior to selling or supplying the products, distributors are required to notify HSA with each product’s full ingredient list.
When a product failed a test (such as testing for heavy metal, arsenic, microbial contamination, etc.), or found containing any prohibited substance in its ingredient list, HSA will then direct the distributor to stop selling and recall the products from stores.
That means there’s basically no way to be sure a product is safe before it’s sold in the market, and no way to get unsafe products off of store shelves other than sample testing and recalls done by the cosmetics sellers or suppliers themselves. This “passive” regulatory practice for cosmetic products is adopted by most of the countries, including US and European countries, mainly because mandatory safety testing on all products prior to selling demands exceptional huge resources.
“It is the responsibility of sellers and suppliers to ensure that the cosmetic products they market are safe for use, do not contain prohibited substances and comply with Singapore's regulatory requirements,” said HSA when it announced 18 cosmetic products found to be unsafe in April 2018.
Self regulation is the only regulation?
So do cosmetic companies do a good job regulating themselves responsibly?
There are definitely times when self-regulation has failed.
- In early July 2019, HSA warned the public against using 4 skin creams that were found to have undeclared potent ingredients including steroids, antibiotics and antifungals.
- In January 2019, HSA found 5 cosmetic creams to contain mercury and potent prohibited ingredients.
- In July 2018, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay a $4.96 billion settlement to 22 women who found asbestos in talc in baby powder caused their ovarian cancer.
- Guthy-Renker, the manufacturer of WEN hair products, settled a class-action lawsuit for $26 million after consumers said it caused rashes and hair loss.
- After decades of use in soaps, the FDA finally banned triclosan from soap in 2016 over concerns about its long-term safety and contribution to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Unfortunately, it is still used in many products like toothpaste, mascara, and foundation.
There are lots of chemicals known to be harmful but are still widely used in the cosmetic and personal care industries.
Authorities are a bit slow in this context as they have to wait for substantial and concrete scientific evidences before they can ban a chemical which has been commonly used for many years. The situation will get worse when it comes to the long-term negative effects of a harmful chemical. Sometime it can take more than a generation to reach a conclusion. Remember the history of our fight against leaded petrol and the war against tobacco?
Choosing safer skincare is up to us
Because there is very limited regulation of harmful ingredients in personal care products, it is, sadly to say, solely up to us to choose safer products for ourselves and our families.
On a day to day basis, we are exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals from all kinds of sources — pesticides, plastics, car exhaust, and more that we can’t control. However, choosing safer skincare and cosmetic products is something we can control. This is a big part of our daily lives.
Removing harmful ingredients from the products we use daily can have a big impact not just to our own health and happiness, but to the environment and economy as well. With less harmful chemicals being used, less toxins being produced, less people getting sick, the world will turn cleaner and people will become healthier and wealthier.
While they are few and far between, there are still a number of companies that are paving the way for transparency, responsibility, and safety testing in cosmetics and skincare. Again, it’s not about blindly choosing brands that are “natural” or “organic” as they can contain harmful ingredients or be contaminated with heavy metals, just like one of the brands recalled by HSA in early 2019.
How to choose safer cosmetics and skincare
Choosing safer products involves finding companies that are transparent with their ingredients and committed to safety testing, and knowing what ingredients to avoid in their products so you can make informed decisions. This is not an easy task, as many “natural” brands don’t actually test their materials or are completely void of active ingredients, which give products their anti-aging or acne-fighting effects.
To find brands that are transparent and do not use any harmful or questionable ingredients, reading and understanding the ingredients list on product labels is essential. But this demands lots of effort as it is rather tedious and time consuming to scrutinise a list full of indecipherable chemical names. We certainly need some tools that can make this process less painful.
3 Easy tools that help you check cosmetic and skincare ingredients quickly
Here is the good news! There are 3 useful tools available online that can make your search for the safety information on cosmetic and skincare ingredients super fast and easy:
1. Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. It provides a very comprehensive online profile for cosmetics and personal care ingredients and products, and their potential hazards and health concerns indicated by a safety rating between 1 and 10 (1 being the safest and 10 the least safe). You can easily get the following information by searching the name of an ingredient on its website:
- Organ system toxicity & environmental toxicity reports with data sources.
- Commercial products, brands and companies that use the ingredient.
2. Cosmeticsinfo.org provides scientific facts and the reasons an ingredient is used in cosmetics and personal care products. Search the name of an ingredient on its website and detailed safety information of the ingredient with data sources will be shown in an easy-to-read manner. However, as it's very much based on US’s FDA standard, its information may not be as thorough as EWG which covers sources of US, Canada and EU. For example, it failed to highlight the risk of Hydroquinone in cosmetic and skincare products. Hydroquinone is already prohibited by HSA in over-the-counter skincare products because inappropriate use of Hydroquinone can change the user’s skin colour, and cause skin reactions such as rashes, redness, tingling and burning.
3. Decode INCI is a very user-friendly skincare and cosmetic ingredients search engine. You can easily perform a search by uploading a label photo using your mobile phone. I have tried using a photo of the first draft label of our newly launched body lotion and the search results showed up in a clear and organised way. This tool is very handy especially when you are browsing some products in a cosmetic store. The only drawback is that the database is less comprehensive as compared to the above two. For example, there is no description at all for Hydroquinone…
So which tool should you use?
Here’s a good tip: For a start, use the photo uploading feature of Decode INCI to upload the photo of a product label with your mobile phone. If you can’t find the information of an ingredient there, copy-paste the ingredient name on EWG or cosmeticinfo.org to crosscheck the information. There is no need to type an ingredient name at all because Decode INCI will automatically convert your label photo into texts which you can copy and paste them anywhere!
Simple and easy, right?
Do try them out now. Hope you will enjoy using these convenient tools to evaluate the safety of your cosmetics and skincare :)
Want to have more control in choosing safer skincare products? Why don't you try making them yourself? Join our skincare workshops and learn how to make your own skincare products from the safest and natural ingredients. Don't forget to register your interest and get notified of our upcoming workshops and events.
Too busy to make? No worries, we can help you customise your skincare so that you can have full control of what's actually in your skincare. Find out more about the active ingredients and herbal extracts that we use here. Do check out our popular natural skincare products too!