This story is co-published with teen vogue.
The Washington State Legislature has passed some of the strongest laws in the nation to protect residents from dangerous chemicals in cosmetics. Beginning in 2025, the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act will ban the manufacture, sale, and distribution of cosmetics containing nine chemicals and classes of chemicals, including formaldehyde and “chemicals forever.”
The legislation, passed last month and expected to become law later this month, puts Washington “at the forefront” of state-level efforts to clean up the cosmetics industry, said Laurie Valeriano, executive director of the Nonprofit Toxic-Free Future. Compared to similar policies elsewhere in the country, she said, it covers more chemicals and does more to encourage the transition to cleaner alternatives. “It’s a huge success,” she said.
The law comes amid growing concern about toxic chemicals in shampoos, deodorants, lipsticks and other products that come into direct contact with people’s skin, hair, lips and eyes. Repeated exposure to these chemicals can cause cancer and damage to the brain and nervous system, among other effects.
The risks are heightened for women of color, who use more cosmetics than white women. In a report published in January, the Washington State Department of Ecology found formaldehyde — a preservative that can cause cancer in humans — in 26 of 30 hair products commonly marketed to people of color, with concentrations in one product up to 1660 parts per million. The short-term exposure limit for formaldehyde set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is just 2 parts per million over a period of 15 minutes.
The agency also found lead, which is carcinogenic to humans and can cause developmental harm in children, in powder foundations at a concentration of 5.55 parts per million. There is no safe exposure limit for lead, according to OSHA.
“These are dangerous chemicals that, if found at a Superfund site … would trigger a significant cleanup process,” said Ami Zota, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. “And yet they are allowed in the products we put near our bodies.”
New Washington State law prohibits companies from intentionally adding formaldehyde, lead, orthophthalates, mercury, methylene glycol, triclosan, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS), and two aromatic diamines to cosmetic products. To account for unintentional lead contamination, it sets a maximum allowable lead concentration of 1 part per million, making Washington the first state to adopt such a limit, according to Valeriano.
Companies that break the law can be charged up to $10,000 per violation, though they have until 2026 to sell existing stock that doesn’t meet the new standards.
Although the Biden administration signed into law new security and reporting requirements for the cosmetics industry last year, the federal Food and Drug Administration still only regulates a small number of chemicals that can be found in beauty products, such as mercury in skin lightening creams. Most chemicals are regulated on a voluntary basis by product manufacturers or by a patchwork of state-level laws. Outside of Washington state, the strictest of these laws are found in California, which in 2020 banned 24 chemicals in cosmetics sold in the state. The Golden State also requires companies to disclose whether they use certain hazardous chemicals in their cosmetics, including as “perfume” — a broad term that can encapsulate dozens of more specific chemical compounds.
Other states like Colorado have also banned PFAS – the so-called “forever chemicals” that are linked to immune system damage and reproductive health issues — cosmetics. Maryland has implemented a similar prohibition in 2021, also restricting the use of 11 other substances such as mercury and certain phthalates.
Valeriano said Washington’s law goes further, however, banning phthalates as a class rather than on a chemical-by-chemical basis, and directing the state Department of Ecology to create a list of chemicals known to release formaldehyde, 10 of which may be restricted from 2026. The law also directs the Department of Ecology to help small businesses and cosmetologists switch to safer cosmetics.
“He has a more holistic approach when it comes to not only banning chemicals, but also providing safer solutions,” Valeriano said.
Zota, a professor at Columbia University, said she was encouraged by the Washington law, but would like to see greater action to combat racist beauty standards that put women of color at risk. increased exposure to toxic chemicals in the first place. As demonstrated research she recently directed for the New York-based nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, women of color often feel pressured to use skin-lightening creams, straightening irons and other products due to the perception that others think straight hair or fair skin is more beautiful or professional. These products may contain phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde, hydroquinone, corticosteroids and mercurywhich are variously associated with damage to the nervous system and kidneys, among other health consequences.
“Colorism remains a huge, huge, huge problem,” Zota said, also citing workplace discrimination against braids, twists, knots and other hair styles associated with black people. Various versions of Create a respectful and open work environmentor CROWN, Act now prohibits such discrimination in 20 states, including Washington and New York, and similar bills have been introduced or proposed in more than 20 other states.