by Debbie Raphael, Guest Contributor

California is poised to finalize a regulation later this year that fundamentally strengthens its evaluation of the chemicals used in consumer products. The members of the professional beauty industry have been key stakeholders in the process of developing this regulation. The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) looks forward to a continued relationship with the professional beauty industry that allows all parties to reach the shared goal of providing for the safety of industry workers and consumers, while providing for the financial viability of businesses.

Much has been written and said about the Safer Consumer Products Regulation, and I’d like to use this article to explain how this approach affects manufacturers and retail outlets, and discuss the opportunities for business innovation.

The Safer Consumer Product Regulation creates a process that requires manufacturers whose consumer product contains a toxic ingredient to ask: “Is this ingredient necessary? Is there a safer alternative? Is that alternative ingredient feasible?” Under the process described in the regulation, the department will identify a list of chemicals that could potentially cause harm when used in consumer products. Next, a small number of products containing hazardous chemicals will be listed as “priority products” and manufacturers who want to sell those priority products in California will need to determine whether it is really necessary to continue making the product using those chemical ingredients.  The way the manufacturer answers that question will determine the regulatory response issued by DTSC. A range of responses, from consumer notification to end-of-life management to product bans are, on the table.

In California, the recent outcry over formaldehyde-based hair straighteners demonstrates the level of concern over the presence of toxic chemicals in consumer products. If, under this regulation, such hair straightening products were selected as a “priority product,” manufacturers would be required to identify a safer ingredient or be subject to regulation in the marketplace to reduce exposure to salon workers and consumers.

Another example came to light a year ago with regard to nail polishes. Our study revealed that numerous nail care products sampled in the San Francisco Bay Area were making toxic-free claims that were not supported by laboratory testing. Salon workers and salons who tried to do the right thing by purchasing products that claimed to be “green” were instead misinformed.

In reality, we have not yet selected the list of priority products. But the nail polish and hair straightener examples demonstrate the need for a supportable process by which retail outlets, workers and consumers can have confidence that their products are indeed safer.

Implementing the Regulations

We believe that requiring manufacturers to analyze alternative ingredients and design safer products is a sound and ultimately profitable approach.

The process for selecting “priority products” will begin once the regulation is in place, and there will be ample opportunity for public comment. The assessment done by manufacturers will weigh alternatives, considering such things as the product’s function and use, those who use the product, and costs of replacing the ingredient. The manufacturer can select a safer ingredient, or demonstrate that a replacement is not feasible. Ultimately, we want products that are useful, effective, and have improved safety.

This approach differs from how we’ve addressed the issue of toxic chemicals in consumer products in the past. The history of the response to this issue is long and filled with wrong turns. In some cases we banned ingredients, substituting a toxic chemical with another that was just as dangerous as or more dangerous than the original. This approach not only continued the cycle of exposing ourselves and the environment to a risky chemical, it could be extremely expensive for the business community.

We believe that requiring manufacturers to analyze alternative ingredients and design safer products is a sound and ultimately profitable approach. Further, a clearly defined process in place for safer ingredients encourages innovation and levels the playing field for those who are already doing the right thing.

Many companies in the personal care product industry and elsewhere recognize the consumer demand for less toxic products. Their innovations have not only created safer products but opened markets for new products. We’ve seen companies large and small – many of them based in California – grow and create jobs around the development of safer alternatives. We’ve seen a growing interest within the beauty salon industry to embrace the idea of less toxic ingredients both as a way to respond to customer demand as well as respond to concerns over potential impacts to worker health.

Providing a clear process for evaluating chemicals in a product brings provides an alternative to the days of banning ingredients and creating uncertainty in the manufacturing sector. Creating safer products as the result of that process benefits us all and gives beauty salons the ability to provide a broader selection of safer products for their customers.

About the Author

Debbie Raphael is the Director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Raphael has been at the forefront of a statewide effort to reformulate consumer products through product re-design, incentives, and consumer right-to-know efforts. She served as co-chair of California’s AB1109 Taskforce and Green Ribbon Science Panel, advising the state on issues around end-of-life management of fluorescent lights and the development of Green Chemistry regulations. To learn more about the DTSC and new regulations, visit dtsc.ca.gov.