A quick look at the European Union’s policies shows a clear tendency to over-regulate, for the sake of precaution. That is especially evident — although not limited to — in the case of consumer goods and modern agricultural practices. However, restricting GMOs and pesticides hasn’t been enough for green activists. Chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products might be next.
Similar to how pesticides are used to protect crops, chemicals in cosmetics preserve beauty products, keep them bacteria and fungi-free, and ensure that they last longer. Chemicals play an important role in making cosmetics cost-effective. Furthermore, most chemicals are used at safe levels and don’t pose any risks to our health and wellbeing. The maximum allowed paraben concentration, according to the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, is 0.8. Most beauty products use are well below that threshold. Lipsticks, for example, contain only up to 0.35 percent of paraben and 0.5 percent of the chemical can be found in bath oils, tablets, and salts.
Yet, some anti-chemical activists have suggested any amount of chemicals — even the trace levels of chemicals used in personal care products and cosmetics — can disrupt the endocrine system in humans, which can lead to a whole host of health problems including but not limited to low sperm count in men, infertility in women, and obesity in children, just to name a few grim outcomes. And now, there are calls to ban these useful chemicals.
Last week, one such anti-chemical activist group called on the European Commission to ban what it calls “endocrine disrupting chemicals” (EDC) during the Commission’s upcoming revisions to the EU’s cosmetic regulatory framework. The group further demanded these bans even when the scientific evidence is either inconclusive or insufficient. In other words, they want the Commission to turn a blind eye to the science they don’t like and ban things instead!
The good news is that not all Europeans want to see these regulatory changes. In 2013, in response to similar calls for EDCs regulation, 71 European scientists sent an open letter to the then Commission’s Scientific Advisor, arguing against applying the precautionary principle to endocrine disruptors, and insisted that it would “rewrite current accepted scientific and regulatory principles.” A closer look at some of the chemicals that are considered endocrine disruptors by these groups, shows that there is not enough evidence to justify bans, and that science — and not EDC-free groups — should prevail.
In 2015, the European Food and Safety Agency (EFSA) concluded that bisphenol A, a chemical used for packaging, “poses no health risks”. The agency also considered exposure to beauty products. Interestingly, an EFSA study from the same year found the following: “only limited conclusions can be drawn from human studies on the likelihood of associations between BPA exposure during pregnancy and disturbed foetal growth, or maternal and infant decreased thyroid function. The evidence is not sufficient to infer a causal link between BPA exposure and reproductive effects in humans.” The popular alarmist narrative remains closed-minded to these facts.
The same applies to diisononyl phthalate, another chemical found in fragrances and air fresheners, oil-based electric heaters, adhesives and sealants, and more. The EFSA identifies this chemical as not carrying any hazards. And yet, these anti-chemical groups want them banned.
It is difficult to assess the effects of these so-called endocrine-disrupting chemicals because they are ubiquitous, and they also occur naturally in your diet, air, skin, and water. For example, phytoestrogens, which also are believed to have endocrine-disrupting properties, are often found in plant-based food, such as soy milk — rich in vitamin B. To live chemicals-free life, we will have to not live at all.
The main worry here is that if the Commission lets such an approach slip once, that will set a precedent for future paternalistic regulations under the cover of precaution. Then, it will not be long until everything will be banned in the EU because of their propensity to trigger cancer, autism, diabetes, or all other sorts of diseases. The unfortunate truth is nothing is completely safe. Even eating too much kale — a nutrient-full vegetable — can cause a dangerous spike in vitamin K and increase the risk of blood clots. If we are banning chemicals in cosmetics, perhaps we should ban kale too, out of precaution?