Empty promises on cosmetic safety

Despite old commitments, a new report by U.S. PIRG finds that L’Oréal is still lagging behind its competitors on ingredient disclosure.

Woman looking at her reflection in a mirror
Woman looking at her reflection in a mirror
Gina Werdel

In 2018, U.S. PIRG and L’Oréal customers were celebrating a win for public health. After years of advocacy, L’Oréal had committed to disclose more fragrance ingredients to the public. Three years later, however, U.S. PIRG has released a report with disappointing findings: L’Oréal, which has just appointed a new CEO, Nicolas Hieronimus, is lagging behind their industry peers on ingredient disclosure. What happened?

First, let’s start with some context. The cosmetic and personal care industry is a poorly regulated industry, facing no requirement for premarket approval of ingredients* or final products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any other federal agency. The FDA has banned only 11 ingredients from cosmetic products, compared to the European Union’s 1,300 banned or restricted ingredients. 

While the FDA requires that cosmetic companies include ingredient labels on their products so that customers can make informed decisions, there’s a wide open loophole. Any ingredient that is used to make up a product’s fragrance, such as a flowery scent, can simply be grouped together and listed as a single ingredient: “fragrance.” There are thousands of allowed fragrance ingredients, many of which are linked to negative health impacts such as skin irritation and allergies, hormone disruption and cancer. 

If a customer wants to avoid a certain fragrance ingredient, then, under the current state of regulations, they would have to avoid all products with “fragrance” in them. In fact, the FDA advises consumers that if they have an allergy or wish to avoid a certain fragrance ingredient, they should simply avoid all products including fragrance. That is easier said than done. So many products, even unscented products, contain fragrance, that people seeking fragrance-free products really have to do their homework. And that’s not something that consumers should have to do. 

U.S. PIRG has long advocated for consumer “right-to-know” policies, meaning that companies should inform consumers of all product ingredients to allow consumers to make informed purchases. So, we convinced Procter & Gamble and Unilever to commit to disclosing their fragrance ingredients. And in 2018, we convinced L’Oréal to make a similar commitment: L’Oréal told the public that it would be releasing more of its fragrance ingredients, but the company failed to set a timeline to follow through on that commitment. 

Three years later, we couldn’t find evidence of any improvements to L’Oréal’s fragrance disclosure. Starting in fall 2020, U.S. PIRG’s Make It Toxic-Free campaign conducted a survey of popular cosmetic brands, looking at the use of hazardous ingredients and ingredient disclosure. Products were evaluated for their use of 24 toxic ingredients recently banned in California, as well as their ingredient disclosure. The results of this survey showed: 

  1. Ingredient disclosure is very poor across all brands studied, and is inadequate for ensuring that consumers can make informed decisions about the personal care products they purchase. 

  2. Of the mega-companies studied (including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and L’Oréal), L’Oréal is significantly behind the others in terms of full ingredient disclosure. L’Oréal controls nearly 40 brands and is the largest beauty company by revenue worldwide. Given its size, L’Oréal has the resources to follow through on commitments to ingredient disclosure, and should be playing an important role as a leader in the industry. 

  3. Most of the chemicals recently banned in the California law did not appear in the ingredient lists of any of the products surveyed. Those chemicals that were found in any of the products surveyed were found in a relatively small number of them. This suggests that companies should be able to reformulate products to eliminate these chemicals faster than required by the new California law.

So what does this mean for consumers? 
Consumers shouldn’t have to be the ones checking their products for safety, but this report shows that they still must do so. Until that changes, consumers should avoid products containing “fragrance” on the ingredient list, and avoid the ingredients listed in our report. 

What does this mean for companies like L’Oréal? 
Companies need to step up to protect their customers, and L’Oréal in particular needs to fulfill its old promise to disclose fragrance ingredients. We encourage L’Oréal’s new CEO, Mr. Hieronimus, to take bold action as he steps into a new and influential role in the beauty industry. It’s time that companies set timelines to disclose all ingredients to the public and eliminate toxic chemicals from all their products. All customers deserve safe beauty products…because we’re worth it. You can sign our petition to L’Oréal here.

Want to know more about our survey? Check out our report for more findings, facts, and recommendations for consumers. 

*Color additives are the only ingredients in cosmetics that require pre-market approval by the FDA.


Gina Werdel

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