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The Story of Cosmetics – What’s Canada’s Story?

Article by Janice Melanson. Executive Administrator, Breast Cancer Action Montreal

The US based group, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, in partnership with Annie Leonard and Free Range Graphics, creators of the internet phenomenon and educational tool, The Story of Stuff, released the new video, The Story of Cosmetics this past July. The new animated video shows people that many cosmetic ingredients are unsustainable toxic petrochemicals, and that the system of regulating chemicals in personal care products needs updating. While the content of the video is based on US regulations and laws, much of the information is pertinent to Canada as well.

Canada’s system of testing and regulating cosmetics is much more advanced than that of the United States, but there is still room for improvement. Health Canada has banned or restricted the use of over 500 chemical ingredients for use in cosmetic products. These chemicals can be found on Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. Comparatively, the U.S. has banned only 8 chemical ingredients for use in cosmetics.


Canada evaluates chemicals, some of which end up on the hotlist, using a risk based assessment approach. This means chemicals are evaluated by the level of risk posed to Canadians through possible exposure. The European Union follows a hazard based assessment model, which means that if there is a known hazard associated with a chemical it is more likely to be banned or restricted. The EU has banned or restricted over 2000 chemicals from cosmetic products. The difference in Canada is, that even if we know a chemical has health risks associated to it, like BPA for example, the risk based method means it can still be used in consumer products if the risk to exposure is considered low enough – even if there is evidence of possible threats to health.

The Story of Cosmetics urges the public to advocate for stronger legislation. Even though Canada’s regulations are much more comprehensive than those of the U.S., Canadians need to use their political voice and let our government know we want them to use a precautionary approach to chemical assessment and use. This means that if there are reasonable scientific grounds for believing a process or product may not be safe, even when cause-and-effect relationships are not fully understood, preventive action must be taken. We also need stricter regulations for terms like natural and organic, as suggested in the video. Currently, industry can claim their product is totally natural, yet it can still contain petro and synthetic chemicals. Another regulatory problem that needs to be addressed in both the U.S. and Canada is the issue of chemical bi-products of production in cosmetics like 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde. Because these chemicals are created as a result of the manufacturing process, they don’t have to be listed on ingredient labels. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and 1,4 dioxane is a hormone disrupting chemical. If we know something causes cancer, why should it be allowed in our shampoo? This labeling loophole needs to be closed.

The video release of the Story of Cosmetics and the works of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and other not-for-profit groups like BCAM (Breast Cancer Action Montreal) are beginning to make a difference. The public is taking notice and changes are happening. Because consumer demand is such a powerful tool, government and industry around the world are beginning to respond. Stricter legislation and consumer demand means industry has had to find alternative ingredients, and they have, through green chemistry and the use of simpler, natural ingredients.

So what can you do?

  • Use internet resources to inform yourself. Don’t assume that just because something is for sale on the store shelf that it is completely safe for human health.
  • Use Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic database and check your product’s safety ratings.
  • Look for, and support cosmetic companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics – follow this link to see the Canadian companies that have signed on.
  • Consider using less products.
  • Make your voice heard – tell industry and government that you want safer products. Find petitions and electronic letters on Breast Cancer Action Montreal’s websites (here and here).

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