It practically leaps off the shelf and into your daughter’s arms: With its iridescent packaging covered in cartoon animals, this stick-on nail kit seems irresistible — even though its label says it contains methyl methacrylate, a banned ingredient that can rip the flesh right off a child’s finger.
After just a few clicks online, the kohl eyeliner arrived in Canada, sheathed in bubble wrap and secreted in a hand-addressed envelope all the way from France — even though international authorities said this product, and other similar cosmetics, contained a high concentration of lead.
A leave-in hair detangler for kids, sold at an independent beauty store in Etobicoke, seems to assure it’s safe because it is made with “extra-virgin olive oil plus” yet the fine print on its label says it contains MI/MCI — a banned substance that can trigger allergies and red blistery skin.
Cosmetics sold across the GTA that contain banned and potentially hazardous chemicals are ending up on our shelves even though many of the risks they contain are listed right on their labels.
The Star scrutinized the ingredients written on the labels of 13 cosmetics. Nearly 30 per cent of the chemical substances in each product had been flagged either by Health Canada as a substance that “may cause injury” or similarly by another international regulator, health organization or watchdog.
They crowd shelves, already groaning under the weight of Canada’s annual $10-billion personal care products industry, before the government even knows what they are or what’s in them. Cosmetic regulations allow companies 10 days to sell their products before telling Health Canada, the agency tasked with ensuring the safety of each. Since 2005, Health Canada has received nearly 422,000 new cosmetics notifications, with significant increases this year over last, and Health Canada is straining to keep up with the deluge of creams, sprays, toothpastes and shampoos.
The oversight system tasked with ensuring the safety of every cosmetic product is designed to catch problems based on information that manufacturers are required to submit.
Health Canada reacts to consumer complaints as well as incidents the industry shares. But it conducts the majority of its oversight by scanning for banned substances in ingredient lists in new products that are submitted to its online notification system. Ninety-seven per cent of these lists comply with regulations, according to Health Canada. A significant majority of the remaining three per cent that are found with a problem — such as a banned ingredient or an incorrect label, for instance — are resolved after Health Canada seeks clarification from the company.
Big cosmetics companies, such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever Canada, work to comply with Health Canada’s regulations. “To do otherwise would risk their brand (reputation) and bottom line,” according to Darren Praznik, president and CEO of Cosmetics Alliance Canada, the country’s trade association.
But what about the cosmetics Health Canada doesn’t know about?
Many “grey-market” companies don’t know or don’t care they are flouting the laws that are most likely behind the tainted products the Star found, Praznik said. These smaller companies are not part of the trade association, which represents 90 per cent of the domestic cosmetics industry.
Praznik, a former Manitoba health minister, said the grey market operates by buying discounted odd lots — cosmetics that are about to expire or weren’t sold by retailers — and distributing them to discount stores. Billions of dollars worth of such products cross the border every year, Praznik said. Usually, they come in trucks, he said, but increasingly they arrive as a result of e-commerce.
He also said he has heard about small discount retailers and spas that order imported cosmetics from suppliers that either don’t know or ignore that these products may not comply with Canadian regulations.
This distribution network, Praznik said, flies under Health Canada’s radar. The manufacturers or the companies that import them don’t submit notifications to Health Canada’s online system. “And so it’s buyer beware,” he said.
Health Canada told the Star that in 2017 the Canadian Border Services Agency recommended that Health Canada refuse nearly 473 shipments of cosmetics that were trying to cross into Canada.
The only way to stop tainted products from being sold, Praznik said, is by conducting random spot checks.
Since 2007, the regulator has tested 823 cosmetics for heavy metals, microbial contamination or banned substances of the nearly 422,000 cosmetics that manufacturers have notified the government about during that same time period. Following a consistently upward trend, last year manufacturers told the government about more than 56,000 new products, 12,000 more than the year before.
The Auditor General said in 2016 that since Health Canada recognizes that its testing is “insufficient to draw general conclusions about market compliance or product safety,” the regulator needs to be more transparent with the public about this “risk-based post-market” approach.
The report also noted that inspectors, checking that recalled products were no longer on shelves, were more likely to follow up with a call rather than a site visit and “in our view, this approach…would provide minimal assurance about whether the recall was effective.”
These are among the information gaps that limited the regulator’s ability to detect, assess and protect the public from risks in some products, including from substances that could interfere with hormones.
Known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), these substances, according to the report, “can present dangers to human health and safety” even at low doses. A joint 2012 report from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme said EDCs “have the capacity to interfere with tissue and organ development and function, and therefore they may alter susceptibility to different types of diseases throughout life. This is a global threat that needs to be resolved.”
For the last four years, the federal government has been working to reform cosmetics regulation, conducting consultations with consumers and stakeholders. It plans to release more details in 2021. Reforms may give the regulator new powers, including to order recalls.
In a written response, Health Canada said that it has improved the time it takes to deal with banned ingredients it finds through its notification system from nine months to 49 days. It has sent more than 200 scented cosmetics to be screened for banned substances and, also in response to the Auditor General’s 2016 criticism, it has increased public outreach. Its website about cosmetic safety provides tips, information about recalls and warnings, including that “part of the responsibility for cosmetics safety belongs to you, the individual consumer.”
The Star had no problem finding cosmetics with banned and potentially hazardous ingredients online and in stores, from independent retailers to big-box shops, across the GTA.
The $7.99 Pop Nail Glitz kit listed methyl methacrylate, an adhesive used on backings of the stick-on nails. It was among toys found in the kids’ section of Winners in Dufferin Mall. MMA, can cause “painful tearing and possible permanent loss of the natural nail,” as well as headaches, nose and throat irritation, skin rashes and small oozing blisters, according to a Health Canada health alert issued in 2003 when MMA was banned from cosmetics.
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Emmy Gao, spokesperson for Hot Focus, the kit’s distributor, said the toy the Star bought was “originally designed in 2017.” Suppliers reformulated the nail sticker ingredients last year, her email said, but Hot Focus “inadvertently” did not update the packaging. In an email, Winners said that it was removing the product from the shelves until it understood the results of Hot Focus’ investigation of the product.
A spokesperson for online seller Ebay, where a reporter purchased the kohl eyeliner, said the item had been removed from the site. The product was banned in Australia in 2018 after authorities discovered it contained lead, a known neurotoxin, and issued an alert. Health Canada had posted a warning about this product in 2005, saying the eyeliner contained “high levels of lead” and that “measures have been taken to prevent further importation.”
Toluene, a volatile organic compound that disperses into the air at room temperature and is also found in paint thinner and cigarette smoke, was listed as an ingredient in the backing of eyelid gems on the Fairy Princess Halloween Makeup kit. It was purchased at Walmart in the Dufferin Mall.
The tiny fake gems are meant to stick right onto a vulnerable part of a child’s face. Health Canada says toluene isn’t banned or restricted in cosmetics sold in the country, but in 2015 a Health Canada safety assessment said toluene gets into blood and can accumulate in fat cells. Exposure to high levels of the substance during pregnancy, such as by abusing “solvents,” the report said, has been associated with “fetal toxicity and developmental effects in children.” Acute exposure to it, from inhalation for example, could lead to “reversible” neurological symptoms. Chronic exposure, the assessment said, is associated with “impaired neurological function including cognitive and neuromuscular performance, as well as negative effects on colour vision and hearing.”
Adam Grachnik, Walmart’s director of corporate affairs, said in an email that the kit was “no longer available in our stores.”
The largest cache of tainted products was found at an independent beauty store in Etobicoke’s Albion Mall. Excel XL Beauty Supplies specializes in cosmetics marketed to ethnic communities. An entire section was devoted to skin lighteners. Several that the Star looked at contained hydroquinone, an ingredient Health Canada said is “not permitted for use in cosmetic products intended to be used on the skin” and has been deemed “toxic” because it has been shown to cause cancer in some animal studies. Though Health Canada says hydroquinone-containing products may also be regulated as natural health products or drugs, the items at this store were sold like the other cosmetics.
Several products, including Kids Originals 2-n-1 detangler spray, contained MI/MCI, a preservative banned in 2015 from cosmetics that don’t immediately rinse off. “Moms can now celebrate combing through their daughter’s hair without a fight or tears,” the bottle says. “Spray a generous amount on hair or scalp…style as usual.”
Crystal Styles, head of education for House of Cheatham, which manufacturers the detangler, said it was shipped to retailers in 2015 before the ban. “Unfortunately, many stores do not rotate their stock to make room for newer manufactured products,” Styles said in an email. “We wish we could do more to better control this issue…We are unable to monitor stores’ inventory.” The product has since been reformulated, Styles said.
On another shelf in Excel’s kids department, the Star found Luster’s PCJ Pretty-n-Silky, a hair relaxer kit that listed methylparaben and propylparaben as ingredients. Both are potential endocrine disrupters, according to the European Union and Washington State’s list of Chemicals of High Concern For Children.
Washington’s Department of Ecology says on its website that there is evidence these substances can interfere with sperm development and can alter testosterone levels. The European Union, considered one of the world’s most progressive cosmetic regulators, has classified both as “Category 1” endocrine disrupters, saying they “may harm health and cause cancer, behavioural changes and reproductive abnormalities.”
Patricia Flowers of Luster’s, the maker of PCJ, told the Star the product was “very outdated” and the kit was reformulated in 2014. Shelf life is about five years, Flowers said, but it shouldn’t sit on a shelf that long. “Sometimes (retailers) don’t rotate their stock like they are supposed to,” she said. Flowers said that Luster Products Inc. sells its products in Canada through distributors and said the company is “in good standing” with regulators around the globe including Canada.
Methylparaben and propylparaben, used as cosmetic preservatives, often in lipsticks, can end up in our urine, according to Health Canada’s most recent biomonitoring report, the government’s biennial project to measure Canadians’ exposures to chemicals it is concerned about. Published in November, the report said “health effects have not been observed as a result of exposures to parabens at concentrations found in cosmetics.” However, the report said, the government has identified these chemicals as a priority and is currently assessing their safety. The report cautioned that even if a substance is detected in our bodies, it doesn’t strictly follow that it impacts health. Health risks depend on a variety of factors, including the chemical’s potential hazard and how, when and how much of it we’re exposed to.
Health Canada told the Star it “takes endocrine disruption very seriously” and supports research, works with other countries to develop standardized tests and uses all relevant toxicity data when conducting safety assessments.
Andrea Gore, a University of Texas at Austin professor and neuroendocrinologist who studies the impact of EDCs on brain development, said endocrine disrupting chemicals have the capacity to wreak biological havoc.
Fetuses, infants and young children are most at risk because their hormones are busy developing their brains and bodies so rapidly, but also because even fetuses contain all the sperm and egg cells necessary to create the next generation, she said. “That ups the ante on making responsible decisions before things end up on our shelves.”
Research has linked EDCs to some hormone-related cancers, including breast, prostate and ovarian, as well as endocrine-related diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, ADHD and autism. But to date, the research doesn’t provide a smoking gun.
Determining which specific ingredient may be responsible for the health effect may be impossible because most people aren’t exposed to one ingredient at one time, but to mixtures of chemicals throughout their lives that combine in their environment and inside their bodies, Gore said. Still some of the “significant uncertainties” about the impacts of EDCs no longer exist, she said. There are classes of endocrine disrupters, such as phthalates, phenols and bisphenols, that scientists are “very confident” pose a public health problem, she added.
On a recent afternoon, a man, who refused to give his name but said he was the owner of the Excel beauty store, said he wasn’t aware some of his products contained a banned substance. He said he would ask his suppliers. If they are banned, he said, he won’t carry them. “This beauty product is huge,” the man said of the kids hair products. He threw his hands in the air. “For sure before they (the supplier) sell it (to us) it goes under government. It passes through the border. We have nothing to do with it. It comes from the U.S. Ask the government, ask the officials. Why you are coming to me?”