Cosmetics business practices and convoluted supply chains, coupled with arguably outdated legislation, make full transparency of beauty products a challenge—even for the most astute consumers and diligent retailers. But if passed, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, introduced earlier this summer, could be well poised to have far-reaching positive effects on the personal care industry, say advocates.

Focused primarily on ingredients and transparency, the act would require suppliers to fully disclose every ingredient and its safety testing to manufacturers and manufacturers to include all ingredients on labels.

"In the big picture, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 will benefit natural companies—many of which are small businesses—by increasing the flow of information to businesses and consumers, leveling the playing field so that all companies are playing by the same rules, and increasing consumer awareness about their choices at the store," says Janet Nudelman, Breast Cancer Fund program and policy director and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics legislative advocacy coordinator.

In addition to increasing transparency and ingredient safety, the bill also has potential to grow the natural colorant and fragrance markets and promote innovation. "I tend to think that innovation increases when there are challenges put on an industry," says Rebecca Hamilton, director of product development for New Hampshire-based natural skin care company Badger.

But these potential challenges also are the bill's main source of controversy.

Opponents, such as the Personal Care Truth, argue such legislation would squash innovation and hinder growth of small businesses (despite the fact that companies making less than $2 million are exempt from registering and paying fees).

The Personal Care Products Council agrees there is a need for legislative enforcement, but says potential business costs of the act as written won't outweigh consumer benefits; others say industry should enforce current regulations, rather than introduce new ones.

"I feel the real issue is not creating additional regulation but instead creating support systems and funding for the FDA so that they can properly implement current cosmetic regulations," says Debbie May, president and CEO of Wholesale Suppliesplus, a soap and candle ingredient supplier.

Though "the idea behind this is not to divide natural and not natural," says Hamilton, the strongest support is coming from the natural products industry. "Leaders in the natural products industry really want to move the market in the right direction and do what's right for public health," says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, who notes that the bill's potential effects will put pressure on mass-market corporations to follow the natural industry's lead.  

Increased transparency

"Fragrance" listed on labels has little meaning because existing law (which dates back to 1938) doesn't require manufacturers to disclose all ingredients on labels. Nor does it require suppliers to provide all information to manufacturers. "In the current marketplace, where ingredients are kept secret and toxicity data is inaccessible, consumers are confused and do not have easy access to the information they need to make informed choices," says Nudelman.

The Safe Cosmetic Act of 2011 would focus on prohibiting the worst offending chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and developmental harm, says Nudelman. More significantly, it would require full ingredient disclosure, including on salon products (the popular Brazilian Blowout treatment was recently under FDA fire for containing formaldehyde) and "fragrances," often a cocktail of chemicals.

"My initial response is 'relief' that we are closer to a time when consumers will have full disclosure to make informed choices on what chemicals they will allow to enter their personal space," says Samantha Dickey, owner of Georgia-based green beauty company Dirty Beauty.

Angelique Saffle, CEO and founder of Bodyceuticals Organic Bodycare and co-founder Nature's Marketplace Nutrition, a health food store in North Bend, Wash., has noticed more consumers demanding transparency and interested in legislation. "A growing number of consumers want transparency in their body care products. They want to know not only about the ingredients and where they come from, but about the story behind the company," she says.

And this education won't just manifest in store aisles and on product labels; the bill would introduce a publicly accessible FDA database that, like the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database, would offer safety information and details on safety tests of cosmetic ingredients. Unlike the EWG's database, the FDA's will also list information on ingredients in fragrance, flavor and colorants.

"We will see total transparency; this is the way the industry is going. Leading companies are already being fully transparent—they make sure they know what they are buying from suppliers, and they are disclosing all their ingredients, including fragrance ingredients, to consumers," says Nudelman.

Tighter supply chain connections

Consumers are now focusing on ingredient sourcing—from food to supplements and now personal care products—and the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 could provide insights into the purity and sources of beauty ingredients.

"Historically, secrecy has been a big part of the industry. Some manufacturers are not even getting information from the suppliers," says Malkan. By working directly with farmers and other local producers, manufacturers can eliminate that guesswork for consumers.

And some natural products stores are stocking only companies that have tight supplier relationships. "As a retailer, we can make a positive impact on the planet by learning about and supporting companies that are earth-conscious and ethically-driven," says Saffle. "By stocking quality products from these kinds of companies, we are encouraging them to stay in business." 

This demand from retailers and consumers could lead to more launches like Dirty Beauty, a new company and strong supporter of the act, that works directly with the source of all its ingredients to ensure quality. "We work as close to the farmer as possible, which assists us in building relationships with the producers of plant-based ingredients," says Dickey. "We qualify our suppliers and utilize the ones we have built a trusting relationship with based on professionalism and technical data analysis, and we strongly consider their recommendations for other suppliers."

For years, Badger also has made purity a priority, using primarily organic ingredients and only ingredients with a long-standing safe history of use. "In terms of how we work with our suppliers, we are very careful. We have them do purity testing and test all of our essential oils for contamination," says Hamilton. Though the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 doesn't mention natural or organic, companies using organic ingredients could have an advantage when it comes to meeting—and exceeding—the terms of the bill.

While opponents maintain that registration fees for small-to-medium size businesses pose a financial burden, smaller natural companies are arguably in a better position to develop tight supplier relationships and know exactly what's in their ingredients.

"The first step is that companies need to know what's in their products and what's in the formulas they are buying from suppliers," says Nudelman, which is an area where large mass-market companies have struggled. "FDA identified three manufacturers—Revlon, Proctor & Gamble and L'Oreal—that had lead levels in their lipstick that were magnitudes higher than other products. Obviously, these companies need to do a better job of sourcing clean materials."

Opportunities: natural fragrance, colorants

Mass-market cosmetics heavily rely on synthetic fragrance, according to Malkan, which is why the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 would greatly affect the fragrance industry. And according to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics fragrance testing, many synthetic fragrances contain multiple allergens and hormone disrupting chemicals. "The fragrance secrecy is a core problem in the industry and it's also something that the companies are prepared for. The thing they are the most worried about is the fragrance disclosure," says Malkan.

Companies will also look beyond mineral- and petrochemical-based colorants to new plant-based colorants to control contamination problems and make products more sustainable, according to Nudelman. One company leading the way with alternative natural colorants is Oakland, Calif.-based 100% Pure. All of its cosmetics are colored from antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, rather than synthetic dyes or even potentially contaminated minerals. For example, black tea or blackberry juice for its mascara.

To significantly grow the market, the demand for these colorants might need to come from manufacturers, as opposed to consumers. May notes that most consumers are too far removed from the colorants and fragrances to have a significant effect. "I don't see consumers strongly focused on innovations in color and fragrance. I see them primarily focused on base materials and chemical additives."

May also says natural fragrance and colorant markets won't see big benefits from the Safe Cosmetics Act; rather, the third party test labs ensuring safety of these ingredients.  

Innovation and green chemistry

One of the greatest debates to emerge from the bill's introduction is its potential impact on innovation. "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," Malkan says.

She and other Safe Cosmetics advocates maintain the act would urge manufacturers to invest in green cosmetics ingredients and processes, phasing out chemicals and growing the natural personal care industry. "There is little incentive to change when it is so easy to hide the toxicity of products and even ingredients in them," says Nudelman.

Unfortunately, the green chemistry industry—which is fundamental to green cosmetics innovation—is still a very small one, with just a handful of colleges offering programs and few cosmetics alternatives available.

"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 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 use the 'bad' chemicals," she says.

Still, some companies such as Dirty Beauty are adopting various green chemistry practices, both for formulating and packaging, using sun-based energy and sustainable, plant-based ingredients to benefit skin and environment. And more would likely follow suit if the bill passes.

"As awareness increases, green chemistry in the area of cosmetics will drive the delicate use of our planet for future generations," says Dickey. "This act could increase the demand for plant-based ingredients and decrease or eliminate the allowance of certain preservatives. We will have to be innovative on how to deliver fresh and active skincare while still minimizing and greening cosmetic packaging," she says.

Like 100 % Pure's entirely plant-based products, Dirty Beauty's products also are sensitive with a shorter shelf-life, presenting some unique and sometimes expensive challenges that could be a barrier to green innovation for other small companies.

However, if large mass-market corporations start investing the dollars as a result of the Safe Cosmetics Act more opportunities (with a more realistic price tag) will become available to smaller natural business. "Big mass-market companies are so slow to move," says Malkan. "But I think we will see a significant change in what they are doing."