Are we the guinea pigs for cosmetic companies?

Cosmetics are a billion dollar industry in Canada. Lotions, creams, perfumes, makeups—every household has some. Each and every morning we get up, we eat breakfast and we get ready for the day. Chances are, getting ready includes using some kind of cosmetic product.

With an industry that plays such a role in our lives, we expect it to have regulations. After all, every day we rely on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure that our meat and produce does not contain harmful bacteria or chemical preservatives. In the same way, we rely on Health Canada to ensure that the things we put on our skin do not contain common allergens or potential carcinogens.

If it worked that way, it would be all fine and dandy, but a new report from the Auditor General found that Health Canada is doing a poor job on this front. In fact, such a bad job that when cosmetic companies disclose their ingredient lists they simply have to say “flavour,” “aroma,” or “fragrance.” What constitutes a flavour, aroma or fragrance? Well that is anyone’s guess.

This vagueness serves to protect companies from being forced to reveal unique ingredients that give them a competitive advantage in the market. But how can protecting company secrets be more important than protecting consumers from harmful substances—substances such as heavy metals that can cause allergic reactions, asthma, or increase the risk of cancer?

But that is not all, the report discovered that Health Canada under the Food and Drug Act, does not regularly test products, does not verify their labels and does not even have a strict method of recalling lotions, makeups or perfumes with known toxins in them. All of this results in cosmetic products on the shelves that might be unsafe to use.

Not only unsafe, but misleading as well. Furthermore, the report revealed that some cosmetics which claim to be unscented, fragrance-free or hypoallergenic actually contain chemicals to mask their own scent. Health Canada can do nothing to hold these false companies accountable. Health Canada only takes action if a company makes an untrue statement about product safety directly on the packaging. Anything else is fair game.

Although Health Canada says it is taking steps by creating a hidden database where companies can disclose their product ingredients without someone else stealing their family recipe, more accountability is needed. A secret database is not enough and does nothing to address the lack of testing for products or counteract misleading claims.  Health Canada may get to see the ingredients in cosmetic products, but it is imperative that consumers see them as well. What it comes down to is that Health Canada has become entangled in bureaucratic red tape and is failing at its most important job—protecting Canadians.