Blog: The Truth on Canada’s Cosmetic Regulations from a Young Consumer


As Canadian consumers we expect to be protected by the administrative powers of our Federal Government. This holds especially true for young consumers (adolescents and children) because of our physical and psychological vulnerability. We assume we are being looked after by our older, wiser counterparts. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The safety of consumers is often overlooked by the cosmetics industry, and because of Canada’s untimely and unenforced cosmetic regulations, the safety of consumers is sometimes compromised.

Cosmetics are claimed to improve our quality of life. Although they are intended for self-improvement, often the result is just the opposite. Cosmetics are regulated under the Food and Drugs Act and its Cosmetics Regulation, which have significant loopholes and have insufficient legal authority. As a result, the current regulatory framework may not fully protect consumers. Because of the conscious efforts of cos-metic manufacturers to keep the public in the dark on the true contents of their products, and the regulations allowing them to do this, consumers continue to have the perception that the government is protecting them from harmful products.

According to Canadian Cancer Statistics, about 2 in 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetimes and 1 in 4 will die of the disease. The “war on cancer” has been an expensive one—research costs going upwards of $100 billion— much of which has been raised with a promise of a “cure”. Less attention has been focused on prevention of cancer, and more specifically, the role that chemical exposure from our environment and products has in causing cancer. Cosmetics and personal care products are a major source of our everyday chemical exposure. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the average person is exposed to 126 toxic chemicals from cosmetics per day. This leads us to believe that long term toxic chemical exposure from cosmetics and other environmental sources could have an impact on cancer risk. For example, coal tar (p-phenylenediamine) is used in hair dyes, shampoo and lotions and is a human carcinogen. It is a by-product of the coal burning process and a mixture of hundreds of compounds. Coal tar is known to cause cancer in humans, with studies showing that its application produces skin tumors. It has also been linked to cancer in the lungs, kidneys and bladder.

Health Canada has listed coal tar as a “restricted ingredient” under their Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. This permits its use while following some guidelines such as a safety stamp warning for skin and eye irritation but there are no restrictions on its concentration. The Hotlist was created by Health Canada to help manufacturers ensure the safety of their products by providing a list of substances that are restricted or prohibited for use in cosmetics. Health Canada acknowledges that the Hotlist is not “exhaustive” and that it is “the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that the products meet the requirements for the Food and Drugs Act and the Cosmetic Regulations”. Simply put, the manufacturers are not legally obligated to use the information given to them by the hotlist to ensure the safety of their product, potentially putting Canadians in a position where they could be exposed to prohibited substances. The process for the government to add more chemicals to the Hotlist is long, and the justification for listing chemicals for prohibition or restriction is not always clear. The Cosmetic Regulations passed under the Food and Drugs Act requires manufacturers to submit a notification package to Health Canada listing the ingredients in their products within 10 days of introducing the product in the market (a post-market notification). This is an administrative list, meaning that the post-market notification requirements may result in chemicals that are prohibited or restricted ending up on the shelf, and used by consumers.

Even when the list of ingredients and their concentrations are disclosed to Health Canada and the public, there is no way of knowing a product’s true contents because of loopholes in the regulations. For instance, there is no accountability for byproducts or impurities from the manufacturing process, or the buildup of “safe” quantities of dangerous substances from regular use or exposure from multiple sources. Because of the large quantity of products that consumers (especially adolescents) use, the buildup of small doses of hazardous chemicals can accumulate into dangerous quantities with prolonged use. Currently, assessment of the hazards of a chemical is generally done by analyzing individual chemicals. This process makes it difficult to understand the cumulative impacts from exposure to multiple chemicals from multiple sources, which is the reality that consumers face. Consumers are at a significant disadvantage from this approach because of the regulatory requirements that include the lack of testing and the lack of detailed labelling.

Manufacturers are able to disguise approximately 3,000 fragrance ingredients under the term “parfum”, hiding potentially harmful ingredients and adding another barrier for consumers to have full ingredient disclosure. Additionally, many of the products one would consider cosmetics, such as antiperspirants, toothpaste, anti-aging lotion and face cream with a UV rating, are not considered cosmetics by Health Canada because they do not have any therapeutic function. This excludes them from following any cosmetic regulation altogether. The current regulatory framework often does not fully protect consumers as a result of the loopholes.

In order to fully protect Canadian consumers, manufacturers should be legally obligated to disclose all the ingredients in their products (including impurities and fragrance ingredients) to Health Canada prior to releasing a product. The system in which chemicals are analyzed and safe dosages are assessed, needs to take into account the accumulative buildup of multiple different chemicals from multiple sources, and re-evaluate the quantity restrictions that have been put in place as a result of the current regime. In addition, labelling regulations should require a full list of ingredients on the product, as well as caution signs warning of the health effects of any restricted ingredi-ents in the product. The current Ingredient Hotlist needs to be expanded in order to provide an exhaustive list of prohibited substances that has clear legal authority, and take steps towards Europe’s cosmetic regulations, which have prohibited or restricted 1,715 ingredients. That is compared to only 573 ingredients that are prohibited or restricted in Canada.

Our federal government needs to take immediate action in strengthening our cosmetic regulations. This will protect us from the potentially hazardous products that could be circulating in the market and in our homes, and fulfill the ongoing expectation that our safety is their top priority.

Olivier Couttolenc was a Cooperative Education student interning at CELA during 2015. Olivier has an interest in environmental sustainability and exploring the law as a potential career.