I am fortunate to be connected with other small business owners who alert me to potentially harmful legislation before it is passed. (You can read their calls to action here and here. And more here and here.) A bill proposing the creation of the Colorado Safe Personal Care Products Act has been introduced in that state; if it passes as is, I will no longer be selling my products in Colorado. If you’re a Colorado resident, be aware that your state legislators will soon be deciding whether to place severe limits on your choices of personal care products. There’s still time to act; you can read more here about how to contact your legislators.

If passed, this bill will “(prohibit) a manufacturer from knowingly selling, offering for sale, or distributing for sale or use in Colorado on and after September 1, 2011, any personal care product that contains a chemical identified as causing cancer or reproductive toxicity.” What a great idea, right? In theory it’s super. The problem is that their list of “known or probable” carcinogens, “potential occupational” carcinogens, and substances “known or reasonably anticipated to be” carcinogens is so broad that they are found in nearly every personal care product on the market. Some components of fragrance oils are considered harmful, for example, but manufacturers who look to essential oils, the “natural” alternatives, would also be out of luck: many essential oils naturally contain small amounts of other “carcinogens.”

Why this bill at this time? The bill is the effort of the Women’s Lobby of Colorado, sponsored in the CO State Legislature by Rep. Dianne Primavera. The Women’s Lobby of Colorado is an endorsing organization of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, founded in part by The Environmental Working Group (did you get all that?!) The EWG has been collecting “evidence” to support its belief that cosmetics are unsafe (see the Campaign’s database at Skin Deep for more details). While the campaign’s goals were initially aligned with many small personal care products manufacturers, more recently their tactics have included misrepresenting overall risks and singling out manufacturers whose ingredient lists they didn’t approve of–pressure akin to blackmail. Some of the companies who had signed with the group early on requested to be removed–and were initially ignored. (Read about Bella Lucce’s experience.) The EWG’s misinformation has spread to the general public, who are understandably nervous after recent public health scares involving contaminants in food, toys, and other products. The EWG is promoting the perception that personal care products are unregulated and are encouraging consumers to demand legislation to “rein in” the cosmetics companies. Though the EWG’s work is pressuring legislators into taking action, they are tilting at windmills.

The truth is that cosmetics are regulated, and have been since the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. This Act prohibits “The introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any food, drug, device, or cosmetic that is adulterated or misbranded” [FD&C Act, sec. 301(a); 21 U.S.C. 331(a)]. Adulterated means that it “bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to users.” There is a list of prohibited and restricted substances at the FDA’s site; there is extensive information about color additives, including those permitted for use in cosmetics as well as overall safety. And there are regulations about labeling, which means that none of us can “get away with” putting things into our products that our customers don’t know about (unless we want to break the law by misbranding).

The truth is that if cosmetics were a huge health problem in this country, we would see many more cases of injury. According to the Personal Care Products Council, cosmetics are the safest of the products regulated by the FDA. “Of the 11 billion personal care products that are sold annually, an average of less than 150 adverse reactions are reported-most of which are minor skin irritations.” There’s a larger percentage of kids in my community (and in yours) who are seriously allergic to peanuts, but you can still buy Skippy at your local grocery store. The moderate, reasoned approach that most of us take toward food allergies is sorely lacking in the EWG’s approach, and in this proposed legislation. Reason and science are exactly what we need to successfully navigate this issue.

We all understand what Paracelcus meant when he said, “Everything is poison, there is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Most substances are not intrinsically good or bad, but harmful or helpful in certain contexts and certain quantities. Too much of a “good” thing (like water) can be harmful or even deadly. A little bit of a “bad” thing (consider botulinum toxin, or chemotherapy drugs) can sometimes be helpful. We rely on good science and research to determine safe usage levels or doses so we can minimize the harm AND reap the benefits. In Colorado, they want to use the research to list “probable,” “potential,” or “reasonably anticipated” carcinogens and, in the absence of usage context or quantity, remove them from everything. This preemptive, knee-jerk response to misrepresented science is intended to “protect” us from the carcinogenic substances in essential oils (present in minute and SAFE quantities) in turn depriving us of so many of the other beneficial substances they possess. It’s an all or nothing approach that benefits no one.

There are countless substances present in our world that pose a threat to our health. We owe it to ourselves to maintain a calm, rational approach, using all of our available research (and doing new studies when necessary) to determine whether the dangers of these substances in quantities commonly used really do outweigh their benefits. Small cosmetics companies have been consumers’ greatest allies in bringing healthier alternative products to the market; ironically, if this act passes and other states follow, small companies will likely be some of the first to go out of business. The real danger here is the ignorance that makes us focus on the harm rather than the benefit, forcing us to throw away the good because of a perceived bad. Tilting at windmills always makes us ignore the real dragons.