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Canada audit identifies cosmetics safety gaps

Cosmetics - Lipstick @morguefile

The Canadian Office of the Auditor General (OAG) has issued several recommendations to Health Canada to address risks from hazardous chemicals in cosmetics and consumer products.

According to an audit report from the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Julie Gelfand, Health Canada has "made progress in improving its oversight approach".

However, there remain "a number of information gaps" that limit the Consumer Product Safety Program’s ability to detect and assess risks posed by harmful chemicals in these products.

The primary concerns raised by the commissioner include:

  • disclosure of ingredients in cosmetics;
  • validating cosmetic safety through product testing;
  • oversight for cosmetic safety;
  • products sold through e-commerce; and
  • counterfeits.

According to the report, Health Canada has agreed to a variety of recommendations made by the commissioner to address these areas.

Cosmetic ingredient disclosure

The report flagged up that there are no standards associated with marketing terms like 'hypoallergenic' or 'fragrance free'. Also, the cosmetic regulations do not require disclosure of chemical components of ingredients characterised as 'parfum', 'aroma', 'fragrance', or 'flavour'.

 The OAG recommends that Health Canada should:

  • conduct testing to determine the extent to which cosmetics include prohibited and/or unsafe concentrations of substances, under such characterisations;
  • encourage manufacturers to disclose, on a confidential basis, complete listings and concentrations for substances with ingredients labelled in this way; and
  • inform consumers that marketing terms should not be confused with health and safety claims.

Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at NGO Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), told Chemical Watch that "it was very important" that fragrance disclosure was highlighted in the report. It "confirmed [WVE's] concern about the presence of fragrance in consumer products, and the problem of the lack of transparency of those ingredients". 

She added that the NGO "do[es] not believe that fragrance ingredients are trade secrets; given that reverse engineering technology exists ... there should be no reason to allow for confidentiality in the disclosure of ingredients."

Cosmetic oversight, pre-testing

In 2007, the government launched an initiative to improve the oversight of cosmetic safety and, in 2008, provided Health Canada funds to implement improvements. These included recommendations to require disclosure on product labels of 26 known fragrance allergens, and mandatory incident reporting of adverse health effects from cosmetics.

In 2012, Health Canada decided not to implement these strategies. While the audit found "the shortcomings that the department identified in 2007 remain, and consumers lack important information to make informed product choices", it made no further recommendations in this area.

But the OAG did recommend that Health Canada make clear to consumers that cosmetics are not tested for prohibited or restricted substances, nor for antimicrobial or heavy metal contamination, prior to sale. 

As in several other countries, Canada conducts post-market consumer product safety oversight to ensure the safety of products, but it does not conduct pre-testing of product safety, nor does it preapprove products prior to sale.

E-commerce and counterfeit products

The report indicates that Canada had few controls to address risks associated with e-commerce products shipped directly to consumers from abroad, and from counterfeit products.

The government addressed counterfeit product concerns in its Combating Counterfeit Products Act in 2015, but the commissioner recommends that Health Canada inform consumers and retailers about associated risks and the limitations of regulatory oversight and recourse.

Health Canada says it will continue to participate in international collaborations to review and assess e-commerce market risks. This includes the OECD’s Working Party on Consumer Product Safety, which is considering online market surveillance guidelines and a consumer awareness campaign in 2017.

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