Amy Elefson, BCAM Intern – Summer 2012, graduate student in public health, University of Saskatchewan
Butylated hydroxyanisole, methylparaben, polyethylene glycol and sodium laureth sulfate are just some of the ingredients that were required to be listed on cosmetics products sold in Canada beginning in 2006. This requirement fell under the Cosmetic Regulations of the Food and Drugs Act, which was seen as a success because food was the only other product at the time for which consumers were given the right to know specific ingredients.
When this requirement became mandatory, Canadians were surprised to learn that their cosmetic products contained harmful ingredients. Although the Canadian government has modified the Cosmetic Regulations since then, the new requirements continue to leave Canadians unprotected against many harmful ingredients because the government takes a risk-based regulatory approach. This means that an ingredient is prohibited or restricted in cosmetic products only when there is enough evidence to show it is harmful. Additionally, due to loopholes in the Cosmetic Regulations, there are both intentional and unintentional ingredients (impurities) that are not required to be listed on cosmetic products.
You may have heard the opinions of those who think the Canadian government should model the Cosmetic Regulations after those of the European Union (EU), but what is it about the EU’s cosmetic regulations that make them the prime example? First, the EU bases their cosmetic regulations on the precautionary principle; this means that if a cosmetic ingredient has the potential to cause harm, the EU has decided it is best not to allow its use. Proof of the effectiveness of the precautionary principle is evident given the following numbers: The EU has prohibited or restricted 1,715 ingredients compared to only 573 ingredients that are prohibited or restricted in Canada.
Ingredients that have been prohibited and restricted in cosmetics sold in Canada can be found on the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. The Hotlist only applies to ingredients used intentionally but does not include unintentional ingredients. And even when an ingredient is placed on the Hotlist, the Canadian government does not have the authority to enforce the prohibition or restriction of that ingredient; without enforcement authority, the Hotlist cannot be used effectively. In contrast, each EU member state has a designated authority responsible for enforcing regulations.
Under cosmetic regulations in the EU, there are separate lists for restricted ingredients and prohibited ingredients. The EU also has lists of approved ingredients for all colorants, preservatives, and ultraviolet filters that are allowed in cosmetics under specific conditions. To be included on an approved list, an ingredient first must be evaluated scientifically for its level of risk.
Another significant difference between Canadian and EU regulations is that, in Canada, there is no governing body that assesses ingredients specifically for the Hotlist whereas in the EU the safety evaluation of cosmetic ingredients is so complex that it is divided into two systems. The first system involves the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), which is responsible for the safety evaluation of cosmetic ingredients that form the prohibited, restricted and approved lists. The second system involves a “competent safety assessor,” someone responsible for ingredient evaluation on behalf of a cosmetic company. Even though a safety assessor does the evaluation, companies still are fully responsible for the safety of the product.
As mentioned earlier, the Cosmetic Regulations contain loopholes that allow for the inclusion of intentional and unintentional ingredients. One loophole is that the word “parfum” or “fragrance” can be used on the ingredient list if it has been used to produce or mask a particular odour; this is considered a loophole because only a partial list of ingredients is provided. Another loophole exists because companies are not required to report impurities or by-products such as lead or formaldehyde and many others considered unsafe.
According to EU regulations, the word “parfum” also can be used to encompass the many ingredients used to create or mask a fragrance but stricter regulations do apply to ingredients considered to be allergens. These stricter regulations help fragrance-sensitive consumers to be informed, which allows them to choose products that are best suited for their needs. Also in the EU, ingredients with impurities must be included on labels and the impurity concentrations must be indicated. Distributors also must ensure that an ingredient sold to cosmetic companies does not have a higher concentration of an impurity than the level indicated on the label.
Although no regulatory system is perfect, the Cosmetic Regulations in Canada could be strengthened by using the precautionary principle for guidance, which would greatly increase the safety of cosmetic products sold on the Canadian market.
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