Unilever takes a bite out of your face cream

tiger_shark.jpgIf you follow our work on cosmetics, you know that companies have free reign over what they put in your products. FDA can’t require companies to test products for safety before (or after) they’re sold, and unlike for food additives and drugs, FDA doesn’t review or approve cosmetics before you buy them. Companies are the deciders when it comes to what’s safe enough to sell.

Cosmetic companies may not have to test, but they do have to list ingredients on product labels, and on at least 126 products you’ll find the ingredient “squalene” listed in tiny print. It’s an oil used to soften skin and hair.

Turns out that squalene can either be squeezed out of the livers of deep-sea sharks, or made naturally from rice or wheat. Seems an obvious choice for cosmetic formulators. But guess what Unilever picked.

Thanks to pressure from our friends at Oceana, Unilever announced this week that it would switch from sharks to plants to make the squalene it adds to Pond’s, Dove, and other Unilever brands. This is great news and an important action, given that shark populations are plummeting worldwide from overfishing.

But what remains disturbing is the fact that, either way, Unilever’s choices are in full compliance with federal cosmetic standards, which allow companies to use ingredients synthesized from, well, anything really -- including animal species collapsing globally in numbers, or petroleum products, or mining industry products --with no requirement that health or the environment be considered.

Our research shows that companies even use ingredients that are known human carcinogens (like coal tar) and chemicals that can harm brain development (like mercury). Not to mention the nearly 90% of cosmetic ingredients that have never been assessed for health or environmental impacts, by the cosmetic industry’s safety panel, the FDA, or any other publicly accountable institution.

Unilever’s action, spurred by public pressure, is taking a big bite out of your face cream. But it’s a nibble when you consider the more than 7,000 other cosmetic ingredients in face cream, sunscreen, deodorant, toothpaste, baby products, and more that still need the same kind of scrutiny.

Photo: Tiger Shark by Willy Volk.

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