California Passes Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act

It's the nation's first state-level ban of 24 toxic ingredients.

makeup display

Mario Carlini - Iguana Press / Getty Images

Amid wildfires, droughts, and a pandemic, Californians are finally getting some good news. Their governor, Gavin Newsom, has signed into law the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (Assembly Bill 2762). This act, which will ban 24 ingredients from cosmetics and personal care products sold within the state, has been called "the biggest influence on U.S. cosmetics safety for close to a century."

AB2762 will ban mercury, formaldehyde, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), endocrine-disrupting phthalates, and long-chain parabens used as preservatives, among other chemicals. Many of the chemicals on the list have been linked to breast cancer, reproductive and neurological damage, birth defects, organ system toxicity, and developmental delays. 

The United States is notoriously bad at regulating cosmetics. Its standards lag far behind the rest of the world and have not been updated since their creation in 1938.

Despite the industry's immense size, a mere two pages of the 829-page Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act govern cosmetics, and these provide the Food and Drug Administration with "no financial resources and sharply limit its authority to regulate chemicals and contaminants that pose chronic risks." The Environmental Working Group (EWG) goes on to say,

"Neither federal nor state laws require cosmetics manufacturers to test their products before they reach store shelves. Regulatory agencies don’t require companies to show that their products are safe, either. Of more than 10,000 chemicals used to formulate cosmetics, just 11 have ever been banned or restricted by the federal Food and Drug Administration." 

By contrast, more than 40 other nations have stricter cosmetic regulations than the United States, banning or restricting over 1,400 chemicals and contaminants. The European Union has long since banned all of the substances included in California's new Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act.

This new law will make products safer for everyone, but Black women stand to benefit greatly, as they represent the biggest market for cosmetics in the United States. Treehugger reported that Black women "are responsible for an estimated 22% of the country’s $42-billion-a-year personal care products market, despite being less than 7 percent of the national population."

The EWG cited a spokeswoman for LA-based Black Women for Wellness, who said, "Levels of formaldehyde that could be used to embalm a body are being used in hair straighteners, and Black women who dye their hair are 60 percent more likely to develop breast cancer."

For products that are used so widely and regularly – on average, women use 12 beauty products containing 168 different chemicals every day and men use eight – it's logical to tighten up the safety standards. California's act is long overdue and will hopefully influence other states to follow suit. When manufacturers are forced to produce a cleaner, safer product for sale in California, they're more inclined to do it for other places, too, which can rapidly shift a market.