What I Learned From Lobbying for Safer Cosmetics in Washington—and What’s at Stake for You

Photo: Chelsea Prestin

I'm at my very first lobbying effort in Senator Tammy Duckworth's conference room in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and a constituent-slash-Beautycounter representative is unwaveringly discussing how she was diagnosed with breast cancer. That's Jude Rollins, from Illinois, and she's just one of 10 Beautycounter (a clean cosmetics and skin-care brand with a mission) reps, who are calling for senators to push the Personal Care Products Safety Act (PCPSA) through on this brisk, sunny afternoon.

The bill essentially calls for safety and transparency in personal care products. It's one that Senator Dianne Feinstein, the woman responsible for removing BPA from baby bottles in 2011, drew up in 2015 that will (hopefully) update how the FDA handles ingredients in beauty products. Reminder: While the European Union bans over 1,300 chemicals from beauty products, the United States bans only 30. And no laws have been passed to update the standards of personal care product safety since 1938.

A quick recap of what things looked like then: the ball-point pen was first patented, a loaf of bread cost nine cents, and chemicals such as teflon had just been discovered. So, if society has progressed to the point where we type everything on a computer, are throwing down nine dollars for gluten-free loaves, and are cautious of the health concerns surrounding teflon and cooking, it's safe to say that the rules for what we slather on our bodies is in need of an update, too.

What's more? Many of the ingredients used in modern-day cosmetics weren't evaluated by the law because they weren't around then. “When we update the 80-year-old safety rules for personal care products, all families will have the confidence of knowing the products they use every day are safe," says Senator Feinstein.

It sounds like common sense, but getting the act pushed through has taken real effort, so when Beautycounter asked me to lobby for their campaign "This time, it's personal," I jumped at the chance.

Keep reading to see what I learned while lobbying, why so many people are pushing for the PCPSA, and what you can do to help. 

beauty lobbying washington personal care products safety act
Photo: Chelsea Prestin

What it's like on the Hill

Though I've been working at Well+Good for two years now, essentially lobbying behind my computer screen by writing about the PCPSA and advocating for clean, safe beauty products, it's a different thing altogether being on the Hill and face-to-face with the senate members.

Standing alongside 100 women (two from each state) advocating for the same thing, however, made me feel stronger. "When I learned we had not updated a major federal law governing the cosmetics industry since 1938, there was nothing that could stop me from making sure that [Beautycounter's] movement would change that," says Gregg Renfrew, founder of the brand. "Since the day I started Beautycounter, I knew I wanted to take on Washington."

And that is just what we do. That day, as I wind in and out of meetings with senate staffers, I'm shocked to learn that lobbying on the Hill is not as scary as it may seem on, say, House of Cards. The Beautycounter team and I simply appeared at the Hart building, went through security, and were free to roam the hallways and knock on senators' doors to meet with them about the issue we were passionate about. You can do that too.

This only adds to the feeling of accessibility that DC-behind-the-curtain grants you.

"The majority of meetings are with the staff on Capitol Hill," says Lindsay Dahl, VP of social and environmental responsibility at Beautycounter who set up the 102 meetings (don't worry—we divided and conquered) we had throughout the Senate that day. Essentially, that means that you're not meeting with the senators themselves, but the people who work for them, which only adds to the feeling of accessibility that DC-behind-the-curtain grants you.

That first meeting in Duckworth's office was very positively received. The two staff members had read over the conversation notes ahead of time (which Dahl had sent over about PCPSA updates), and were receptive to signing onto the bill. Later on, after meeting with Senator Chuck Schumer's office, we were greeted with refreshing agreeability. "The good news is that he's already been engaged and been in briefings on the bill," says Dahl as we leave his office. "Having his weight behind it is good."

Regarding changes, one thing I learn is very exciting news—formerly, the PCPSA called for the FDA to review five ingredients a year for safety. That's been updated to review five ingredient categories—which means broader categories of ingredients such parabens could be evaluated, versus specific ingredients like methylparaben or propylparaben. This change allows the FDA the option to do a more sweeping evaluation when scientifically appropriate, and essentially means the bill would be even more impactful toward its better-for-consumers goal. Onward and upward.

beauty lobbying pcpsa
Photo: Twenty20/@dontstopwishing

What's at stake

The more I advocate for this bill, the more I realize its importance. Beautycounter's lobbying mantra is true: This time, it is personal. It's personal for every mother who's concerned not only about what she puts on her body but her child's; every woman who wants to be able to trust that products on the shelves have been tested for safety, since 60 percent of their contents can potentially be absorbed into the skin. The list goes on—but the moral of the story is that, if the PCPSA isn't passed, the U.S. will continue to remain far behind other countries who have made more sweeping updates.

"We owe it to American families to remove harmful chemicals from the products they use on their bodies every single day." —Gregg Renfrew

"I believe that we owe it to American families to remove harmful chemicals from the products they use on their bodies every single day," says Renfrew.

At the end of the day, the main the fight is for greater transparency so that everyone has the tools necessary in order to be a educated shopper. It's a fair ask. And one that some brands are even taking upon themselves to address.

Of course, it does help to lobby, as well as to write letters or call your local representatives to urge them to pass this bill. And voting helps. But I've learned that simply having the information necessary in order to make informed decisions is powerful in itself.

To help with that, here's the beginner's guide to reading a beauty product label. And this is why clean beauty is growing among the industry's biggest brands

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