Chemicals in cosmetics - are they safe?

Are personal care products full of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals?
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  • Updated:24 Jun 2009

02.Who regulates cosmetics?

Cosmetics sold in Australia are regulated by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), a division of the Department of Health and Ageing. Its role is to assess the safety of chemicals new to Australia and existing chemicals if reason for concern arises. Anyone importing or manufacturing cosmetic ingredients or products must be registered with NICNAS. Products must comply with certain legislative requirements, including labelling of ingredients, which is overseen by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (see below).

International bodies with a say in cosmetics formulation and regulation include:

  • The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a US-based panel that reviews and assesses cosmetic ingredients and publishes the findings in peer-reviewed scientific literature. It’s supported by the Food and Drug Administration and funded by industry, but has no regulatory clout.
  • California has a law, Proposition 65, under which known carcinogens and other dangerous substances must be listed on products containing them, along with a warning label, making them rather unattractive for consumers.
  • Cosmetics in Europe must comply with the Cosmetics Directive, overseen by a panel of independent experts.
  • Health Canada publishes a hotlist of ingredients that are banned or restricted in cosmetics.
  • The Ministry of Health and Welfare in Japan has established the Standards for Cosmetics, which lists banned and restricted ingredients.

Australian labelling laws

All cosmetic products must be labelled with ingredients so consumers can check for allergens or other ingredients to which they may react.

The listing must appear either on the product packaging, or on pamphlets or display panels near the product at point of sale. Premium products often come with lots of packaging, so labelling is fairly straightforward. Cheaper products available in supermarkets are usually blister-packed on cardboard, which allows room for ingredient information.

In chain department stores such as Target, Kmart and Priceline, where products are sold without additional packaging, you’ll find pamphlets or cards listing ingredients near the products (it’s difficult, for example, to legibly print all the ingredients onto a tube of lipstick).

In bargain stores and two-dollar shops, you may not always find any sort of labelling at all.


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