Regulating Chemicals in Your Cosmetics

Addie Tiller discusses the nuances of toxicants in cosmetics and how researchers and politicians are calling for better regulation in Canada.


There may be potentially harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in your shampoo, deodorant, or nail polish. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified both formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives as human carcinogens.

While formaldehyde is regulated in Canada, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are not regulated. There are also no disclosure regulations in Canada. In the European Union, formaldehyde is allowed up to a maximum concentration of 0.1 percent and concentrations above 0.05 percent must be disclosed through a “contains formaldehyde” label on the product. In Canada, formaldehyde is permitted at a maximum concentration of 0.1 percent in oral products and 0.2 percent in non-oral cosmetics.

The lack of transparency is an ethical concern. Consumers may have difficulty understanding the ingredients on cosmetic labels, especially when formaldehyde-releasing preservatives include DMDM hydantoin and quaternium-15 which may not be commonly recognized by the average consumer.

In addition, women of colour in particular are at a disproportionate risk of exposure to toxicants in this form. As a result, safer products for Afro-textured hair are crucial for reducing this risk.

Photo Credit: Tullia/Wikimedia Commons. Image Description: Senate room, Parliament, Ottawa, Canada.

Manufacturers and marketers are aware of the added pressure on women of colour to conform to white beauty standards, according to legal scholar Lara Tessaro whose research focuses on cosmetic labelling and regulation.

Research shows that in the United States in particular, black women on average use more personal care products and use products that are often more harmful to human health. One example that’s often referenced is chemical hair straightening products and these often contain formaldehyde.”

Chemicals are primarily regulated through the 1999 Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Senate Bill S-5, introduced in 2022, aims to investigate how health and environmental risks have changed since 1999 and to strengthen the management of chemicals, including the class of substances that appear in everyday products. The Bill also calls to create a “watch list” which identifies substances of potential concern for consumers and manufacturers. This “watch list” would take a more precautionary approach to chemicals management.

Alana Cattapan, Canada Research Chair at the University of Waterloo, endorses a “watch list” approach. “With chemicals regulation we’ve had a pretty open door. We’ve banned things after recognizing they’re harmful. We might be better off— for our health and well-being— to think in a more precautionary sense about chemicals. Lobbyists wouldn’t like that, and maybe I wouldn’t be able to use my shampoo anymore,” said Cattapan. The precautionary principle in bioethics follows that decision-makers ought to take risks to human health seriously, even when the scientific research is not fully certain of those risks.

The Bill passed its second reading in the Senate and is currently being considered by the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Hopefully the watch list will become a reality and help call attention to potentially harmful chemicals in products. The sponsor of the Bill, Senator Stanley Kutcher, hopes the watch list will urge both manufacturers and consumers to use “greener and safer substances,” as he put it in his speech to the Senate.

In recent years, awareness of chemicals in cosmetics has been growing, evident through documentaries like Toxic Beauty and major beauty retailers offering natural alternatives. In Halifax alone, three local business are addressing the desire for cleaner cosmetics: Bradshaw Pure Esthetics, The Tare Shop and Simply Go Natural Cosmetics. While these alternative products exist in small businesses, they are not as available in mainstream drug stores. Consumers should be aware of the risks associated with the products they use daily so they can make informed decisions.

As parliament, businesses, researchers and consumers start to focus on the ingredients in their cosmetics, there should be more disclosure on labels and consumers should be made more aware of the potential risks to using certain everyday products.


Addie Tiller is studying Psychology and Political Science at Dalhousie University.

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