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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.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Aug 14, 2011

It's an interesting thought that this bill would lead to safer cosmetics and a level playing field for small businesses, but that is not so. What this bill would end up doing is making it nearly impossible for a small company to make products containing herbs. Most herbs have not undergone the extensive safety testing that synthetic ingredients have undergone and we have seen this problem arise many times with supplements. This bill would also make it impossible to source ingredients locally in small amounts. Many small companies buy beeswax, herbs and other ingredients locally to support the economy. A small grower or beekeeper will not be able to afford the testing for contaminants called for in this bill. So even though these same herbs would be considered safe for ingestion they would not be deemed safe for topical use because of lack of testing. The bill calls for testing of finished products as well; without explaining exactly what they are looking for we would assume they mean lead, arsenic, etc. No small (micro) company can afford testing on each batch of product, but the large manufacturers who make large batches could afford this testing and benefit from smaller companies being put out of business. These same king of laws put small toy makers out of business a few years ago.

Aside from hair dyes and nail products which I don't know much about I cannot think of any cosmetic ingredient in use that has not undergone safety testing and been found safe for cosmetics. Proponents think that this bill might eliminate parabens, but truth is paraben safety has been thoroughly evaluated on both sides of the Atlantic and found safe, and safer than many of their replacements. I'd like to see more money available for researching cosmetic ingredients but this bill will not do that, it will burden both manufacturers and the FDA with so much paperwork nothing else will get done.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2011

The potential for chemical reform is quite exciting, but it should be done in a way that doesn’t sacrifice millions of animals (for toxicity testing) in the name of better protection for human health and the environment - and to bring the latest lipstick shade to the market. The revised bill should mandate and create market incentives to use nonanimal methods. We need to ensure that chemical testing is in line with the 21st century and relies on modern, human cell and computer-based methods that provide accurate data on how a chemical acts and what the impact on human health may be.

Consumers in support of H.R.2359 (not verified)
on Aug 16, 2011

Why are food,water, and toys being discussd for a Bill safe cosmetics Bill? When those Bill's are put forth that is the time to discuss them. As for Cindy's response this Bill would put small companies out of business like a Bill did for toy companies that is just a false statement. KB toys went of a business because of the recession not because of any Bill. This Bill is good for consumers. As of right now there is ONLY voluntary recall's for personal care products. This Bill would make it mandatory. With the vast amount of products being imported from China I can not comprehend why any group would be more concerned this Bill could hurt there business, and not at all concerned with what this Bill will do for consumer saftey. There are many Indie companies that are doing everything to distort the Bill; to flat out lie about the Bill. That makes me wonder, are they putting ingredients in the products they do not want consumers to know about. Or is it they care so little about there costumers and are only thinking of themselves. What ever the reasons it is very disheartning. Consumers matter!

Stacy Malkan (not verified)
on Aug 16, 2011

Amy Cannon is correct, to a point, that legislation can hinder innovation. That has been the effect of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1978, which allowed all chemicals already on the market to be "grandfathered in" and required minimal safety testing of only new chemicals. Of course that had the effect of chilling innovation by encouraging companies to keep using the same old toxic substances rather than developing safer alternatives. Until we have new, modernized regulations that require transparency and set meaningful safety standards -- like the Safe Cosmetics Act and the Safe Chemicals Act that would replace TSCA - green chemistry will continue to be a niche discipline at a handful of colleges rather than the new mainstream standard.

on Jul 1, 2013

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