American Beauty: Why Europe Bans Cosmetics America Won’t


Whenever I daydream on a particularly dreary day, I imagine walking along the streets of Paris, dressed, coiffed, and projecting je ne sais quoi, like the uniquely chic French girls. Like most Americans, I’m guilty of Euro-worship. Everything seems better across the pond: the food, the men, the beauty products. While we insist on injecting ourselves with Botox, European women seem to know how to age gracefully. But perhaps the secret to European healthy living lies in the fact that the European Union strictly regulates the extremely hazardous chemicals found in everyday products here in the United States.

To date, the EU has banned 1,100 chemicals in cosmetics; the Food and Drug Administration in America has banned only ten. In fact, Cover Girl waterproof mascara contains the same ingredient (petroleum distillates, an oil by-product) as Dr. Scholl’s Wart Remover-both of which are illegal in Europe. Shocking, right? While I would never intentionally coat my lashes with wart remover, I do apply mascara multiple times a day. When I realized that many of the chemicals banned in the EU-but found in FDA-approved beauty products-cause cancer, birth defects, genetic mutation, and organ damage, I wondered: why is our regulation system so different from (and, dare I say, less effectual than) that of our European neighbors?

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bithionol?

If the U.S. has thus far prohibited only ten chemicals, you can imagine they’re pretty gnarly. As of 2010, the FDA has banned the following chemicals from any product sold in the U.S.:

  • Choloroflurorocarbon
  • Chloroform
  • Halogenated salicylanilides
  • Hexachlorophene
  • Mercury
  • Ethylene chloride
  • Bithionol
  • Prohibited cattle material (tallow and its by-products)
  • Trichloroethane
  • Zirconium

The names may sound like a foreign language, but these chemicals were available in aerosol hairsprays, shampoos, face creams, deodorants, and more up until a few decades ago. Several other chemicals found in fragrances, such as AETT (acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin) and nitrosamines, can cause severe neurotoxic disorders and discoloration of internal organs. The fragrance industry voluntarily discontinued using these additives in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, U.S. law can’t prevent other countries from importing prohibited cosmetics. Mercury, used mostly in skin bleaching or whitening products, used to be a preservative in shampoos, bubble bath, hair color, deodorants, etc. As it’s absorbed through the skin, mercury causes brain, kidney, and lung damage. But cosmetics containing mercury are often smuggled into the U.S. from China or India. After a case of mercury poisoning from an illegally imported skin-whitening cream occurred, the FDA warned against using such products but was unable to take any further legal action.

The Sheriff of Makeup Town

When it comes to cosmetics, the FDA is largely a paper tiger. Unlike with food and drug additives, the FDA has no authority to test chemicals in cosmetics, to require safety testing before products reach the consumer market, or to recall products. Cosmetic manufacturers are wholly responsible for the safety of their own products and for making sure they adhere to the FDA’s guidelines. Companies also aren’t required to register their cosmetic establishments, file data on ingredients, or report cosmetic-related injuries to FDA.

Compare U.S. legislation with European law. The U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines cosmetics as products for “cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.” The intentionally vague language gives manufacturers a lot of freedom to produce questionable merchandise without the risk of government interference.

By contrast, the European Union Cosmetics Directive (EUCD) defines a cosmetic as “any substance or preparation intended to be placed in contact with the various external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, and/or correcting body odours and/or protecting them or keeping them in good condition.”

In case that wasn’t clear enough, the EUCD mandates that products “must not cause damage to human health when applied under normal or reasonably foreseeable conditions of use.”

While the EU has more protective and stringent laws toward cosmetics than the U.S. does, it also has the advantage of having each member state regulate products within its own national borders. Where we have one regulatory body, Europe has twenty-seven independent (but cooperative) organizations.

Blinding Us with Science

So who tests for unsafe additives in beauty products in the U.S.? The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a self-policing safety panel, is the FDA’s main source of scientific data. According to its Web site, the CIR “thoroughly reviews and assesses the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased, and expert manner, and publishes the results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

But despite its claims of “fair and balanced” results, the CIR is funded by the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), an industry group of more than six hundred cosmetic companies. In fact, the PCPC reportedly spent over $600,000 on lobbyists in Sacramento to prevent the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005, a law that would have required manufacturers to post any unsafe ingredients on product labels, from passing.

Reports from environmental and public-health groups, like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, have often directly contradicted the “safe” findings of the CIR. In a 2007 study, the Environmental Working Group found that:

  • One in thirty products sold in the U.S. fails to meet industry or government safety standards.
  • Nearly four hundred products sold in the U.S., such as Crest Whitestrips and Neutrogena daily face cream, contain chemicals banned in Japan, Canada, and the EU.
  • Ninety-eight percent of all products assessed contained one or more ingredients never tested for safety.

However, even with the CIR’s reports readily available, many cosmetic companies continue to create products that defy safety guidelines. Since the CIR has the authority only to “advise,” not to regulate, these products are still sold in stores all across America. U.S. companies often create safer products for their European market and sell the more dangerous versions in American stores.

Many companies acknowledge the danger of the chemicals in their products but insist that using the product as directed minimizes health risks. But before you lather, rinse, and repeat, remember that trace chemical amounts accumulate over time in the human body, and the CIR’s tests don’t account for lifelong use. Your daily body wash might contain a small, permissible amount of phthalates, but over the course of several years, the amount of phthalates in your body can reach extremely unhealthy levels.

A Safer Lipstick, a Healthier You

These days, if you’re not eating free-range, organic, all-natural food, expect to drop dead any minute-at least, that’s what your vegan-fanatic neighbor would have you believe. But Americans are so concerned with what they put in their mouths, they forget to watch what they put on their skin. I’m no different: a trip to Whole Foods’ produce section gives me a sense of superiority, but I still wash my hair with Pantene Pro-V.

Before you pull a Henry David Thoreau and become a hermit in the woods, remember that you can get involved. Tell your congressional representative your concerns about effecting stricter legislation, and try to buy products whose ingredients you can recognize easily. is a wonderful resource for toxicity levels of brand-name products. It’s inevitable that my body will encounter a fair share of toxic chemicals over a lifetime-thank goodness for my liver!-but if I can make small changes to my daily routine, my body will thank me in the long run.

Article by Bijani Mizell for DivineCaroline. First published May 2010.

Related DivineCaroline posts:

  • The Price of Beauty: What’s Lurking in Your Cosmetics?
  • When It Comes to Beauty, It Ain’t Easy Being Green
  • How to Tell if Your Beauty Products Are Actually Natural

Image: Akira Ohgaki