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Cosmetics regulation and innovation: frenemies?

The personal care industry currently is debating what has been a hot topic in supplements for years: regulation. In this case, many natural products manufacturers are hoping for stricter regulations. Here, manufacturers, chemists, and activists weigh in on how legislation like the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 affects innovation. My take? Stricter regulations will lead to much-needed green change, and ultimately cosmetics advancements, but the resulting consumer education and demand are even more influential.

 

Nearly a year has passed since Joe Smillie, senior vice president of Quality Assurance International, said that "green is the new black" at a Natural Products Expo East session on the future of organic personal care. Now, the controversial Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, introduced earlier this summer, shows promise for supporting his prediction. If passed, the legislation could urge manufacturers to invest in green cosmetics ingredients and processes, phasing out chemicals and growing the natural personal care industry. But is the relationship between stricter regulations and cosmetics innovation that black and green?

For some natural beauty advocates and experts, it is. Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, maintains that a lack of strict regulation is the greatest barrier to necessary cosmetics advancements. “The one thing we know for sure is that current regulations, which have allowed the chemical industry to produce billions of tons of chemicals with no safety studies required, are holding back innovation,” she says.

For years, loose regulations allowed companies to use potentially dangerous surfactants and preservatives and hide them from consumers, says Janet Nudelman, policy director of the Breast Cancer Fund who coordinates the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ legislative advocacy. “There is little incentive to change when it is so easy to hide the toxicity of products and even ingredients in them,” she says. “The Safe Cosmetics Act will help level the playing field so that all companies are playing by the same rules, and so that consumers and manufacturers have access to the full information to help them make the best choices. This will help drive innovation forward for safer alternatives.”

Rebecca Hamilton, director of product development for WS Badger Company, agrees that challenges, often in the form of strict regulations, force companies to amp up efforts to make products more natural and more efficacious. As we were talking, her point became clear in the context of the European Union, which has led the way with far stricter cosmetics regulations and has also been at the forefront of cosmetics innovation.

Still, groups like Personal Care Truth have vehemently opposed the Safe Cosmetics Act, arguing such legislations will squash innovation and hinder growth of small businesses. And it’s not always so clear-cut within the natural products industry, either: Some green chemistry experts say the relationship between legislation and innovation isn’t necessarily positive.

“Green chemistry is not a regulatory approach to innovation," says Amy Cannon, executive director of green chemistry education organization Beyond Benign. "Sometimes regulation can lead to further innovations in these areas, but oftentimes not.” Cannon argues that more alternatives need to be available in order for legislation to have a positive effect on the industry. Green chemistry alternatives must precede the regulation. “When no alternatives exist, then sometimes regulation can delay the invention of alternatives because the regulation ends up (not intentionally so) being a license to us the ‘bad’ chemicals,” she says.

So, it’s not that black and green. But when it comes to cosmetics, I do believe that stricter legislation is much needed. And I also believe that if the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 passes, after the industry experiences what Hamilton calls “growing pains,” innovation will flourish.

For me, however, the true key is that legislation like the Safe Cosmetics Act strongly influences transparency; if consumers and manufacturers know what they’re getting, they’ll be more vocal with what they want. This education (which can exist regardless of whether a bill passes) and the resulting demand will prove to be even more critical to innovation, working its way through the supply chain to shift manufacturing processes and ingredients. And these results have the potential to far exceed any regulations’ requirements.

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