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Buyers beware: Cosmetics safety incidents not reported, no forced recalls

Carlitos Canete puts on lipstick during a gay pride parade in Asuncion, Paraguay, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. The LGBT community marched to demand authorities outlaw all forms of discrimination. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Health Canada doesn’t regularly test cosmetics for harmful or prohibited substances and there’s no legal requirement to report adverse health and safety incidents unlike other consumer products, says a new audit from the federal environment commissioner.

The report from Julie Gelfand finds that millions of consumers lack the information to make informed choices about the makeup, toothpaste, creams and other beauty products they use.
And the growing online market is only making the problem worse.

“It’s really important for consumers to be aware that products are not tested by Health Canada prior to being put on the shelves,” Gelfand said Tuesday at a news conference.

While Health Canada lists restricted and prohibited chemicals and sets rules for their use, it is up to the cosmetics industry to follow the rules, said Gelfand, and up to consumers to be aware of what substances might be of concern.

“Health Canada has to provide that information to you and it’s frequently not available,” she said.

Gelfand is recommending that Ottawa find a way to encourage manufacturers to provide a complete, confidential list of the secret ingredients in their fragrances, flavours and aromas in order to check them against known safety concerns.

And she says consumers need to know that marketing terms such as hypoallergenic, preservative-free, fragrance-free or unscented have no validity in terms of health and safety.

For example, cosmetics labelled fragrance-free and unscented, the audit found, might actually contain chemicals to mask an odour.

The audit noted that Health Canada has no powers under the Food and Drug Act to order the recall of cosmetic products.

“For the most part, I’m personally not worried about walking through the department store (fragrance section) and I’ve got makeup on and I’m using shampoo,” said the commissioner.

“If I have a health and safety incident, which I have had in the past with a makeup product, I would now know that I should call Health Canada, because there is not mandatory reporting. Nobody else will tell Health Canada except, potentially, the consumer.”

Health Canada does do risk assessments when they are made aware of incidents, said Gelfand.
The former government decided in 2012 not to proceed with mandatory incident reporting for cosmetics, although other consumer product health and safety incidents must be reported to Health Canada within two days under legislation passed in 2011.

The audit looked at 50 cosmetic notifications, which must be made to Health Canada within two weeks of a new product hitting the store shelves, that were found to contain prohibited substances between April 2013 and June 2015. The report said it took an average of about nine months before Health Canada acted and even then there was little evidence of follow-up to ensure the products had been removed or stopped from entering Canada in 48 per cent of the cases examined.

And those new product notifications do not include the many counterfeits on the market, nor do they include any of the cosmetics that Canadians purchase online, Gelfand stressed.

NDP critic Nathan Cullen said cosmetics regulation appears to be “Caveat emptor: Buyer beware,” and that’s no way for Health Canada to oversee product ingredients than can trigger asthma and other health effects, including, according to Gelfand’s report, links to cancer.