Ask a Chemist: Beauty Product Safety

Photography: istockphoto

Photography: istockphoto

Recently, consumers sounded the alarm on social media when an indie polish brand reportedly destroyed users’ nails, and a natural sunscreen is currently the subject of a lawsuit claiming it failed to prevent burns. We asked chemistry prof and director of McGill University's Office for Science & Society Dr. Joe Schwarcz, how are beauty products vetted for safety?

How does Health Canada regulate beauty products? And do these same rules apply to brands sold only online?

The sole requirement is that any cosmetic manufacturer must contact Health Canada to say it’s putting [a new product] on the market and provide a list of the ingredients. Health Canada then examines the list, and if anything is on the hot list [of prohibited or restricted cosmetic ingredients], it will contact the company to ask what’s going on. It’s a very self-regulated system. If a product contains an ingredient on the hot list, the manufacturer may be advised to remove it from the formulation, reduce the concentration to an acceptable level, provide evidence the product is safe for its intended use, confirm the product is labelled as required, and/or confirm it is sold in child-resistant packaging. In terms of indie products cooked up in someone’s kitchen and being sold online, there is no way for Health Canada to regulate these brands.

Who is responsible for product safety testing?

It is up to the manufacturer to carry out testing, and the majority of them do, simply out of fear of what would happen should they release an unsafe product. This is one of the reasons why there hasn’t been a government push to further regulate [the industry]—because there haven’t been many problems. The self-regulation system works well. The companies themselves will remove ingredients that are problematic. The number of [adverse] reactions due to cosmetics is very small. You get some skin irritation and some allergic reactions, but it’s very, very rare.

Websites that trade or sell discounted used makeup are gaining popularity. Are there dangers to purchasing these products?

The biggest risk would be bacterial contamination. Used products could certainly cause some unpleasant skin irritation, but the area of most concern would be the eyes. If any bacteria were to get into them, it could result in serious infection.

Some beauty brands market natural ingredients as safer than synthetic ones. Are they?

The properties, the effectiveness and the safety of any substance do not depend on whether it’s synthetic or natural. The safety depends totally on what the molecular structure is. There are many highly toxic natural substances, like scorpion venom, snake venom and ricin [a poison found in castor beans]. All of these things are natural, so debating the safety of natural versus synthetic ingredients is a false dichotomy. Nothing should be favoured just because it’s natural.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Cosmetics magazine. For more, download our iPad edition.