Advocates fight back against harmful chemicals in kids' makeup and hair products

Advocates fight back against harmful chemicals in kids' makeup and hair products

Many children use makeup and body products such as glitter, face paint and lip gloss. Scientists are pointing to the harmful chemicals in some of these products, and advocates are looking to outlaw them.

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When Erika Schreder’s 14-year-old daughter, who is Black, had her curly hair braided at a Seattle-area salon two or three times recently, the hairdresser applied a styling gel to seal the tresses in place.

Schreder and her daughter had been trying to avoid harmful chemicals, so they were shocked to later learn that this particular gel had the highest level of formaldehyde of any product tested by the Washington State Departments of Ecology and Health. In January 2023, the agencies released a report that uncovered high levels of formaldehyde in certain hair products, creams and lotions marketed to or used by people of color. When Schreder saw the report, she mentioned it to her daughter, who told her the name of the gel smoothed on her hair.

“It was really upsetting,” said Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future, a Seattle-based nonprofit environmental health research and advocacy organization. “Learning that this product used on my daughter’s hair contained cancer-causing formaldehyde made me even more committed to advocating for our state to ban toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products.”

In 2013, Toxic-Free Future launched Mind the Store to challenge the nation’s largest retailers in adopting comprehensive policies that eliminate toxic chemicals in their personal care products and packaging, and develop safer alternatives.

Now, more efforts are underway to expose and mitigate the harm in cosmetics, hair care and other products that children apply on their faces, heads, nails and other body parts. Advocates hope to raise awareness among parents while prompting manufacturers and salon professionals to adopt safer alternatives.

A recent study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, revealed that most children in the United States use makeup and body products that may contain carcinogens and other toxic chemicals. In January, the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Based on more than 200 surveys, 70 percent of parents in the study reported that their children 12 or younger have used makeup and body products marketed to youth — for instance, glitter, face paint and lip gloss.

Childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.

“We are concerned about exposure to chemicals that may be found in cosmetics and body products, including those that are marketed toward children,” said the study’s senior author, Julie Herbstman, a professor and director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health. The goal of the survey was to try to understand how much kids are using cosmetic and body products and when, how and why they are using them.

“There is widespread use of children’s cosmetic and body products, and kids are using them principally to play,” Herbstman said. “That’s really quite different than how adults use cosmetic and body products.” Even with products that are specifically designed for children, “there’s no regulation that ensures that these products are safe for kids.” Also, she said, some children are using adult products — and they may do so in inadvisable ways, such as ingesting lipstick or applying it to other areas of the face.

Earlier research demonstrated that beauty and personal care products manufactured for children and adults frequently contain toxic chemicals, such as lead, asbestos, PFAS, phthalates and formaldehyde. Heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in children’s makeup and body products are particularly harmful to infants and youth, who are growing rapidly and whose bodies are less efficient at metabolizing these chemicals. Whether these chemicals are added intentionally or are present as contaminants, they have been associated with cancer, neurodevelopmental harm, and other serious and irreversible health effects, the Columbia University and Earthjustice researchers noted.

“Even when concentrations of individual chemicals are low in products, the potential for interactive effects from multiple toxicants is important to take into consideration,” the authors wrote in the journal article. “Allergic reactions, such as contact dermatitis, are some of the most frequently cited negative health outcomes associated with the use of cosmetics.”

Children’s small body side, rapid growth rate and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults.

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In addition to children’s rapid growth rate, the study also reported that their small body size, developing tissues and organs, and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults. Meanwhile, the study noted, “childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.”

Although adults are the typical users of cosmetics, similar items are heavily marketed to youth with attention-grabbing features such as bright colors, animals and cartoon characters, according to the study. Beyond conventional makeup such as eyeshadow and lipstick, children may apply face paint, body glitter, nail polish, hair gel and fragrances. They also may frequent social media platforms on which these products are increasingly being promoted.

Products for both children and adults are currently regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Also, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 directs the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA “to issue regulations requiring that all ‘consumer commodities’ be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of business of the product's manufacturer, packer, or distributor.” As the Columbia University and Earthjustice authors pointed out, though, “current safety regulations have been widely criticized as inadequate.”

The Personal Care Products Council in Washington, D.C., “fundamentally disagrees with the premise that companies put toxic chemicals in products produced for children,” industry spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email. Founded in 1894, the national trade association represents 600 member companies that manufacture, distribute and supply most personal care products marketed in the United States.

No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products. -- Environmental Working Group.

“Science and safety are the cornerstones of our industry,” Powers stated. For more than a decade, she wrote, “the [Council] and our member companies worked diligently with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and a diverse group of stakeholders to enhance the effectiveness of the FDA regulatory authority and to provide the safety reassurances that consumers expect and deserve.”

Powers added that the “industry employs and consults thousands of scientific and medical experts” who study the impacts of cosmetics and personal care products and the ingredients used in them. The Council also maintains a comprehensive database where consumers can look up science and safety information on the thousands of ingredients in sunscreens, toothpaste, shampoo, moisturizer, makeup, fragrances and other products.

However, the Environmental Working Group, which empowers consumers with breakthrough research to make informed choices about healthy living, believes the regulations are still not robust enough. “No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products,” states the organization’s website. “Although many of the chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics and personal care products likely pose little risk, exposure to some has been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.”

The group, which operates the Skin Deep Database noted that “since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals, in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.

But change, for both adults and kids, is on the horizon. The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 significantly expanded the FDA’s authority to regulate cosmetics. In May 2023, Washington state adopted a law regulating cosmetics and personal care products. The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) bans chemicals in beauty and personal care products, such as PFAS, lead, mercury, phthalates and formaldehyde-releasing agents. These bans take effect in 2025, except for formaldehyde releasers, which have a phased-in approach starting in 2026.

Industry and advocates view this as a positive development. Powers, the spokesperson, praised “the long-awaited” Modernization Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022, which she said, “advances product safety and innovation.” Jen Lee, chief impact officer at Beautycoutner, a company that sells personal care products, also welcomes the change. “We were proud to support the Washington Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) by mobilizing our community of Brand Advocates who reside in Washington State,” Lee said. “Together, they made their voices heard by sending over 1,000 emails to their state legislators urging them to support and pass the bill.”

Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future, praised the upcoming Washington state law as “a huge win for public health and the environment that will have impacts that ripple across the nation.” She added that “companies won’t make special products for Washington state.” Instead, “they will reformulate and make products safer for everyone” — adults and children.

You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo. -- Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena

The new legislation will require Washington state agencies to assess the hazards of chemicals used in products that can impact vulnerable populations, while providing support for small businesses and independent cosmetologists to transition to safer products.

The Toxic-Free Future team lauds the Cosmetics Act, signed in May 2023.

Courtesy Toxic-Free Future

“When we go to a store, we assume the products on the shelf are safe, but this isn’t always true,” said Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena, a Democrat serving in the 29th Legislative District (Tacoma), who sponsored the law. “I introduced this bill (HB 1047) because currently, the burden is on the consumer to navigate labels and find safe alternatives. You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo.”

The new law aims to protect people of all ages, but especially youth. “Children are more susceptible to the impacts of toxic chemicals because their bodies are still developing,” Mena said. “Lead, for example, is significantly more hazardous to children than adults. Also, since children, unlike adults, tend to put things in their mouths all the time, they are more exposed to harmful chemicals in personal care and other products.”

Cosmetologists and hair professionals are taking notice. “Safety should be the practitioner’s number one concern” in using products on small children, said Anwar Saleem, a hair stylist, instructor and former salon owner in Washington, D.C., who is chairman of the D.C. Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and president of the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology. “There are so many products on the market that it can be confusing.”

Hair products designed and labeled for children's use often have milder formulations, but “every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another,” Saleem said. He recommends doing a patch test, in which the stylist or cosmetologist dabs the product on a small, inconspicuous area of the scalp or skin and waits anywhere from an hour to a day to check for irritation before continuing to serve the client. “Performing a patch test, observing children's reactions to a product and adequately adjusting are essential.”

Saleem seeks products that are free from harsh chemicals such as sulfates, phthalates and parabens, noting that these ingredients can be irritating and drying to the hair and scalp. If a child has sensitive skin or allergies, Saleem opts for hypoallergenic products.

We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers. It’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives. -- Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá.

Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said current regulatory loopholes on product labeling still allow manufacturers to advertise their cosmetics and personal care products as “gentle” and “natural.” However, she said, those terms may be misleading as they don’t necessarily mean the contents are less toxic or harmful to consumers.

“We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers,” Quirós-Alcalá said, “as often alternatives considered to be less toxic come with a hefty price tag.” As a result, “it’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives.”

To advocate for safer alternatives, Quirós-Alcalá suggests that parents turn to consumer groups involved in publicizing the harms of personal care products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a program of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, a national science-based advocacy organization aiming to prevent the disease by eliminating related environmental exposures. Other resources that inform users about unsafe ingredients include the mobile apps Clearya and Think Dirty.

“Children are not little adults, so it’s important to increase parent and consumer awareness to minimize their exposures to toxic chemicals in everyday products,” Quirós-Alcalá said. “Becoming smarter, more knowledgeable consumers is the first step to protecting your family from potentially harmful and toxic ingredients in consumer products.”

Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French, with minors in German and Russian, from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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