Non-UK readers, and maybe even a few UK readers may not have heard of the long running British radio series Desert Island Discs. It is a simple but brilliant format. Guests to the show are asked to say which 8 records they would take with them to a desert island, and they are also allowed to take a luxury. This popped into my head the other day when I was reading about the latest (unofficial) draft of the proposed American Safe Cosmetic Act over on Personal Care Truth. This is incidentally even in this much modified form about the daftest thing to come out of the States since M.C.Hammer’s trousers, but I digress.
It got me thinking about what I would do to ensure cosmetic safety if I was suddenly put in charge of a desert island. Which one piece of legislation would I take with me? (I haven’t chosen my 8 records yet, but Saturday Night by Whigfield will have to be in there.) There is a ton of legislation covering cosmetics in both the US and the EU. Even though there are lots of differences in the detail the end result is much the same. It is almost never necessary to reformulate a product that is suitable for one market to make it legal in the other. But there is one feature of the EU legislation that I find rather neat. This is the requirement that every product on the market should have been assessed for safety prior to its being marketed by a suitably qualified person.
So what the law is saying is that before you let it loose on the public somebody who knows what they are talking about needs to have had a look at the formulation and given it the okay. I don’t know about you, but I feel much more assured to know that something has been looked at by an expert who was prepared to sign it off, than that it meets the requirements of a particular directive. It is actually a much better protection than proscriptive legislation. It is quite hard work to frame legislation to tell people all the things they can’t do wrong. And they are bound to find loopholes.
A good example of how it works in practice is the skin lightening agent hydroquinone. Used in creams at between 2% and 4% it both lightens the skin and risks permanently damaging it. Skin lightening creams have been effectively been removed from the shelves in the UK and I believe in most of Europe as well. But it continues to be used at much lower levels in hair dyes where it is perfectly safe. This has largely been achieved because toxicologists won’t sign off hydroquinone creams.
The system works because at the end of the day, very few of us are willing to put our names to something we know is wrong. On the other hand, getting round troublesome legislation by spotting the loopholes doesn’t feel wrong. You didn’t make the rules after all.
I don’t think that there is any particular need for the Americans to change their laws on cosmetic regulation. It isn’t as if people are regularly going down with cosmetic poisoning after all. Nobody has died from using shampoo. But if they really want a bit of extra assurance I think that they might want to look at bringing in a requirement for safety assessments along the same lines as are required in Europe. All the companies that currently export to Europe already have them in any case, so it will hardly be a burden. That is what I would do anyway.
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