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New state study fuels renewed efforts to ban toxic chemicals from cosmetics in Washington

In this May 30, 2018, photo, a shopper looks through the updated cosmetic department at a Target store in San Antonio, Texas.
Eric Gay
In this May 30, 2018, photo, a shopper looks through the updated cosmetic department at a Target store in San Antonio, Texas.
Updated: May 3, 2023 at 2:24 PM PDT
Substitute House Bill 1047 passedduring the 2023 legislative session.

A new report from the Washington State Department of Ecology found formaldehyde in 26 of 30 body lotions tested in a study of products marketed to people of color. It found lead in two dark-powder foundations and one lipstick. One dark-tint foundation also contained arsenic.

The findings are fueling renewed efforts to ban a list of hazardous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care items sold in Washington.

“Now that we have this data, showing clearly that products sold in Washington, marketed to people of color, have chemicals like formaldehyde and lead, it really shows the urgency of our legislature acting to end this disproportionate exposure,said Erika Schreder, science director with the nonprofit Toxic Free Future, which supports the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, HB1047.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Lead exposure causes myriad health problems including brain and kidney damage and can be fatal. Other toxics covered by the bill include the “forever chemicals" known as PFAS as well as phthalates. Exposure to them can lead to health issues ranging from allergic reactions to infertility and cancer.

“These toxics, some of them have lifelong impacts. And there's no reversing that,” said Rep. Sharlett Mena, a freshman Democrat representing Tacoma’s 29th legislative district and the prime sponsor of the legislation.

A similar bill died in the Senate appropriations committee last year. But the state kept the ball rolling by funding the Department of Ecology’s study of personal care products marketed to people of color. The products tested were chosen in consultation with community members and groups familiar with popular brands and items.

The high rate of toxics found in a number of the products came as a surprise to many people, including Schreder of Toxic Free Future. Her teenage daughter is Black. Schreder was shocked to learn one of the products tested was a styling gel used at the salon where they go to get her hair done.

“So, you know, the very the product that had the very highest levels of formaldehyde is the one that was used on my daughter,” Schreder said.  

Mena said items like these should not be available in Washington.

“You know, I don’t think folks should have to be a toxicologist to go shopping for their personal care products,” she said. Instead, she wants the state to ensure they’re removed from store shelves.

She pre-filed the legislation in December. It was the first bill heard by the house Environment and Energy committee this session.

Mena said that as a Mexican American and federal affairs liaison at the state Department of Ecology, she is passionate about environmental justice and equity. She wanted to bring that lens to all the work she does as a first-year legislator, especially to ongoing issues. This one hit the mark.

“Because we are talking about toxics that people are ingesting every day when they get their daily use products,” Mena said. “And we're talking about something that is predominantly - or at least disproportionately - impacting people of color.”

She hopes the early introduction of the bill will give it a better chance of crossing the finish line this session.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to