In summary

California lawmakers refused to bar the sale of cosmetics containing toxic chemicals after pushback from business interests, who said it would apply to trace amounts too small to be harmful.

Vivian Song of Sacramento tries to keep up with the latest makeup trends. While she pays attention to the ingredients in her beauty routine, she says others are clueless.

“Not a lot of girls know what they’re putting on their face,” she said. “Whatever’s trending, they’re going to put it on.”

Vivian Song, 19, says she wears organic makeup to alleviate breakouts. Photo by Elizabeth Castillo for CALmatters
Vivian Song, 19, says she wears organic makeup to alleviate breakouts. Photo by Elizabeth Castillo for CALmatters

California’s Legislature considered banning the sale of cosmetics containing any of at least 15 toxic chemicals and minerals—including formaldehyde, asbestos and mercury. But after major pushback from powerful players such as the California Chamber of Commerce, which put the bill on its annual list of “job killers,” Assembly Bill 495 failed to survive its first committee hearing.

“The goal of this bill is to bring California up to par with the majority of European and other nations that have already banned these cosmetics with highly toxic chemicals,” said Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi of Torrance, the bill’s author. “We certainly don’t want to kill jobs,  but we want to make sure that these products are not being sold when there’s strong scientific evidence indicating there are harmful impacts on women, men and children.”

But the Chamber said it would have imposed “onerous and unnecessary economic burdens on California manufacturers and retailers by immediately banning thousands of personal care products from being sold in California….The mere presence of a chemical in a product cannot be a proxy for ‘exposure.’ Actual exposure at a level sufficient to cause harm, as determined via rigorous analysis, should be the standard for more regulation.”

Advocates said the bill would allow California to step in where the federal government had failed to protect consumers. In March, the federal Food and Drug Administration identified asbestos in makeup sold at Claire’s, a retailer located in malls nationwide. The agency asked Claire’s to recall the makeup, but it did not. Only after the FDA released a public statement did the retailer pull the product from its shelves.

Even so, the FDA noted: “To be clear, there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety.”

“It’s ultimately still the honor system,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, a sponsor of the Muratsuchi’s bill in California.

There is no amount of contact with asbestos—a combination of six naturally occuring minerals— that is considered safe, according to multiple government agencies, including the federal  Centers for Disease Control. Asbestos also appears on California’s Proposition 65 list and is known to cause cancer.

Asbestos can sometimes be found in talc, a mineral frequently used in certain personal care products like baby powder and eye shadow. A Reuters report concluded that Johnson and Johnson knew its baby powder was sometimes contaminated with asbestos and the company knowingly kept that information from the public and regulators. The company faced thousands of lawsuits from those who claimed the asbestos-tainted products caused cancer.

Others argue that there is enough cosmetic regulation and the bill would make it difficult for manufacturers and retailers.

“This bill proposes an outright ban on many ingredients extensively reviewed by independent experts worldwide and found safe for use in cosmetics,” said Jay Ansell of the Personal Care Products Council at the bill’s committee hearing. (The Council also opposes a bill that plans to ban tiny hotel toiletries.) “The ban would adversely affect tens of thousands of products and potentially compromise the ability to provide consumers with the safe high-quality products they expect.”

More than a decade ago, the state launched the California Safe Cosmetics Program, which features an updated, searchable database of products containing potentially harmful chemicals and minerals. Last year then-Gov. Jerry Brown line-item vetoed money to update the program and boost staff.

It currently features more than two dozen common cosmetics containing lead, for instance, and nearly a dozen containing arsenic.

While companies are required to report harmful chemicals, there is no enforcement of company disclosure.

Lead, another element the bill sought to ban, is more difficult to navigate. The substance is commonly found in small amounts in water and soil, according to the federal  Environmental Protection Agency. Opponents argued that companies wouldn’t intentionally add lead to products, but since it’s so commonplace, trace amount of the element can still be found in makeup.

So where do Californians go from here? Muratsuchi said he plans to try again next year.

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Elizabeth is a general assignment reporter for CalMatters. She graduated from Chico State with a bachelor's degree in journalism. While in college at Chico, Elizabeth did internships with the local NPR...