California Just Passed Landmark Legislation to Get Poison Out of Personal Care

There's mercury in your moisturizer.

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Credit: Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Earlier this month, the California Assembly approved the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, eradicating a dozen potentially hazardous chemicals – including mercury, formaldehyde, and PFAS – from personal care products sold in the state. These endocrine and immune disruptors have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and other illnesses, and yet despite being banned in the European Union, they’re still present in many personal care products, from hair straighteners to moisturizers to eye creams to nail polish. (We explored the 14 cosmetics ingredients to avoid – and better-for-you alternatives – in our guide.)

“Cosmetics companies can legally use these ingredients, and they don’t provide consumers with any information about the potential impacts of certain ingredients on human health,” says Susan Little, Senior Advocate for California Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Ten of the chemicals covered by the new legislation – the first ever state prohibition of chemicals in personal care products – have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Many are found specifically in products marketed to black women, particularly hair straighteners and dyes. A National Institutes for Health study released last year found a direct correlation between women using these products and an increased risk of breast cancer, concluding that black women are most adversely affected.

“Some of the most toxic ingredients are being aggressively marketed to black women,” says Nourbese Flint, policy director for the Los Angeles-based Black Women for Wellness, in a press release. “Levels of formaldehyde that could be used to embalm a body are being used in hair straighteners and black women who dye their hair are 60 percent more likely to develop breast cancer.”

While you can certainly opt for non-toxic beauty products on your own, this bill will force companies to own up to the toxic chemicals present in their products, making it even easier to keep them out of your home and your beauty routine.

“The U.S. cosmetics industry is notoriously underregulated,” says Little, who notes that only nine chemicals are currently prohibited or restricted by the FDA for use in cosmetics for safety purposes. “Ingredients that science has shown to be unsafe are legally permitted in the cosmetics sold online, at your local drugstore or department store – or anywhere else in the U.S.”

If the bill passes, it could be good news not just for California, but for cosmetics consumers nationwide, explains Little. Much like Vermont’s historic 2014 GMO labeling legislation, this bill will likely force cosmetic companies to eradicate these substances from products sold in all states. 

“Since California has such a large economy, the bill’s bans could affect the products sold in other states as well,” she says. “Manufacturers will reformulate their U.S. products to meet the bill’s requirements.”

The bill was passed by a “resounding” bipartisan vote of 54-0, reports EWG, and the legislation will now pass to a senatorial vote.

“​Due to the bill’s broad support,” says Little, “we think that the bill has a good chance of passage out of the California Senate.”

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco