California is uncovering secret ingredients in cosmetics

The FDA allows cosmetic companies to hide toxic fragrance ingredients from consumers. But this fall, California passed a landmark bill to change this.

Perfume bottle CC via
CC via

This fall, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a landmark bill (backed by CALPIRG and other advocacy groups), the Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Right to Know Act, that will empower consumers to know what they’re putting on their bodies. Implemented in January 2021, the new law will force cosmetic and personal care companies to disclose potentially harmful ingredients to the California public. But what will that actually look like? And what will this mean for customers who don’t live in California?

Under U.S. law, cosmetic and personal care companies are not required to disclose all the ingredients they put in their products. The companies have argued that fragrances can be considered trade secrets, so any ingredient that helps create a product’s fragrance can be left off a label and summarized as “fragrance.”  

This is concerning for numerous reasons. First, it means we don’t know what’s hiding in our products under the “fragrance” label. As customers, when we’re trying to do something as simple as buying shampoo, we don’t know what those bottles contain, even if we’re well-versed on this issue. The only choice we have is avoiding products with “fragrance” on the label altogether (which is harder than one might think). 

Second, testing of these products has shown many contain fragrance ingredients that may be toxic to humans–causing cancer, hormone disruption, birth defects, and more–or could be hazardous to our environment. And, right now, there’s no way to know which of these products contain the harmful ingredients. 

Labeling fragrance ingredients is kind of like labeling soda as diet or regular. Most of us have a strong preference one way or the other, and want to know what we’re buying. But imagine a world in which you go to the store and products don’t say “cane sugar” or “aspartame” on their labels, instead, both types of soda just say “sweet flavor.” You’re not sure what that means, but you buy the soda and drink it. Maybe it causes health problems, maybe it doesn’t. This world is the world of cosmetic and personal care products. We just don’t know what we’re buying.  

The California Flavor and Fragrance Right to Know Act will change that. Under this new law, if a company uses any ingredient on any of 27 lists of hazardous chemicals (which includes the entire Proposition 65 list), the company is required to disclose it in a public database. So, while companies will still be able to use these nasty chemicals, they will no longer be able to hide them from shoppers. 

But wait, this bill is just for California, and I’m a resident of Idaho — what does this mean for me? Can I see the public database to find out what ingredients are in my stuff? Yes! If you’re buying products in a different state, you can still refer to the database and see the full ingredient list. Once that information is public, the fragrance no longer qualifies as a “trade secret.”

That’s great news, not just for Californians, but for all of us. However, it is not a perfect solution. Here’s why:

First, this law does not require companies to disclose all fragrance chemicals; it only requires that they disclose chemicals on a set of designated hazard lists. While these lists are updated regularly to include newly determined hazardous chemicals, companies may still be able to hide some toxic chemicals that haven’t yet been added to the lists.

Second, this law does not require that companies put fragrance ingredients on product labels, only in the database. This will make it less likely that consumers look at these ingredients at all. It’s a lot to ask of people to research which products appear on this database before they actually go to the store.

Disclosing ingredients to hold companies accountable is just a start. Ultimately, we need companies to stop using these chemicals and putting their customers at risk, and instead find safer alternatives. During that transition, they should do more than just include their information in a database; they should disclose all ingredients on their labels so that customers can easily see that information as they shop.

Overall, this bill is a critical step towards safety in cosmetic and personal care products. We shouldn’t have to be suspicious that the products we use on our bodies every day contain chemicals that can harm our health; we should have definitive answers. California is not just helping Californians gain the right to know; they’re leading the way for the whole country.