Cosmetics (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd August 1978.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mrs Joyce Butler Mrs Joyce Butler , Haringey Wood Green 12:00 am, 3rd August 1978

It is now 12 years since I first introduced a Private Member's Bill to provide for ingredient labelling of toilet preparations, because I was concerned about the many cases of allergies, rashes and similar conditions which were sent to me by sufferers who complained that they had been unable to discover the particular substance which had apparently caused the trouble. From this correspondence I became aware just how much consumers are concerned about better protection, and more detailed information in regard to the toiletries which they use.

I approach the subject as a layman, and I welcome the attempt of the EEC directive on cosmetics to meet this need and ensure greater safety in the use of cosmetics. However, because I believe that consumers have a right to know the contents of toilet preparations, I am disappointed that the directive does not make this a requirement for cosmetic labelling.

The United States finds it perfectly practicable to require the complete formula qualitative, in descending order of concentration, to be printed on the carton or container of all cosmetics. I have here three such cartons from the United States. The first is for an eye shadow stick, which has listed 16 ingredients. The second is for a lip pencil which has listed on it 21 ingredients, and the third is for an eye pencil containing 22 ingredients. All the ingredients are extremely clear and easy to read and understand. Obviously, this must greatly assist consumers in making a choice. It also assists their doctors in identifying chemicals which have caused health problems.

I hope that the Minister will say whether there are any proposals, either as an addition to the directive or as a separate instrument to be introduced later, for this kind of ingredient labelling in this country. Such a step is long overdue.

I regret that the directive takes the negative form of concentrating on some 360 substances which must not be used and on others where special precautions must be taken, rather than producing lists of approved ingredients which have been tested for quality and safety.

In spite of this, I believe that the directive is a big step forward into an area where hitherto there has been an absence of specific legislative action. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell me when he expects these regulations to be introduced. We are well beyond the originally prescribed date of 29th January 1978.

I appreciate that the delay may be due to consultations with expert advisers about some of the more difficult aspects of the directive. It is because I hope that the Minister intends to go beyond the directive in some important respects that I have asked for this debate today. Once the regulations are made it will be difficult to have a real debate because they are then a fait accompli and, in any case, I may not be in Parliament at that time.

I turn to the subject of hair dyes. I wonder whether the Minister has any idea how worried consumers are about the steady spate of press reports indicating that some hair dyes may be carcinogenic in their effects. Consumers are scared because they have no idea what the vague term "permanent hair dyes" means. Therefore, they worry about a whole range of coloured setting lotions, colour rinses and dyes of one kind or another. They have no idea of the name of the manufacturer or the brand names of any colours which may be suspect.

If ever consumers had a right to know, it is in this case. They should not have to worry about this without some hard information and firmer protection. At the same time the Minister knows that the experts with whom he confers are concerned that the new knowledge obtained by research—some since the original directive was made two years ago—should lead to a tightening up of the directive's proposals.

I refer particularly to the hair colouring agents grouped in the directive under the name of phenylene diamine and salts, and also to the lead-acetate based hair treatment products. The one which is called 2–4 diamino-toluene has been the basis of Japanese work dating back to 1955, and it is accepted that there is good evidence for its carcinogenicity. It has been reported removed from many hair-dye products. In the light of its use, will it be completely proscribed under the British version of the regulations, or what will the position be?

Another product I wish to mention is 2·4=diamino-anisole. Preliminary evaluation of American data on this indicates again carcinogenicity. It is being recommended that its exposure in the United States should be minimised, and that warnings should be mandatory on hair-dye labels and in hairdressing salons. What will be the position in this country in regard to this chemical under the new regulations?

It would not be appropriate today to go into the expert criticisms which have been made in detail, apart from those which I have mentioned, but it is accepted that although the whole subject is one on which it is difficult to legislate, there is little or no scientific sense in the way the constituents are grouped in the directive, or in the maximum levels set.

Perhaps I can put the problem as I see it in this way. A correspondent wrote to me: If only something could be done to alleviate our anxieties, and if only we could be given the necessary advice with regard to the dangers inherent in the use of hair dyes"— my correspondent adds somewhat dramatically— you would be a benefactor to mankind if you would concern yourself in this matter and would earn our deepest gratitude. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me whether that lady or any other person, male or female, who wished to colour her hair—and these dyes are widely used—can be assured that he, the Minister, has made the necessary amendments to the directive in the light of expert criticisms of it to prevent any suspect dyes from being used in hairdressers or on sale over the counter? If he has not been able to do this, will he explain why not? Has he strengthened the warnings required for use of these chemicals so that they are much more explicit than those originally proposed? Has the Minister ensured that the names of suspect chemicals that are still permitted are clearly shown on the containers so that this lady and others who wish to avoid them can exercise their own judgment or obtain medical advice about their use?

A worrying suggestion has been made to me which I hope the Minister will allay. Will he say whether any dyes or other chemicals are permitted by the directive which would formerly have been prohibited here? If that is the case, will he say what those products are? I hope that this is not the case, but perhaps the Minister will confirm the situation.

Furthermore, in view of the time necessarily involved in any amending directive and regulations, is there any kind of fail-safe mechanism by which, if a substance in use is discovered to be dangerous to health in the light of new research, it can be withdrawn from sale with something like the speed at which tins of salmon have been withdrawn from shop shelves in the last few days? Has my hon. Friend yet taken a decision whether chloroform is still to be used in toothpaste, because, as he knows, there is considerable medical concern about this mildly carcinogenic substance being used in toothpaste since it may be ingested, particularly by children?

With regard to another substance, surma, the lead-based, Asian-made eye cosmetic often used by Asians to brighten their children's eyes, with the subsequent danger of causing brain damage or poisoning to the children, I understand from the Minister that the new regulations will have the effect of prohibiting its sale and that of any other eye cosmetics containing lead and its compounds.

Because of the traditional use of this cosmetic and the ignoring of previous warnings about it and possible language difficulties, is my hon. Friend taking any special steps for the enforcement of the regulation to ensure that the product is not actually used once it has been banned?

On enforcement generally, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, of which I have the honour to be a vice-president, believes that weights and measures authorities should be responsible for enforcing the new cosmetic regulations, rather than this work being done by the Pharmaceutical Society, which is making representations that its inspectors should have the responsibility.

Since weights and measures authorities employ about 1,500 officers who can take on this work as part of their routine visits to all sorts of shops, including drugstores, supermarkets, chain and department stores and pharmacists, from which cosmetics may be sold, I share the AMA's hope that total enforcement will be given to these authorities. In addition, many weights and measures authorities have consumer advice centres which are ideally positioned for giving help and information to consumers about the safety of toilet preparations, which is my main concern in initiating this debate.

I have asked the Minister a number of questions which I hope he can answer. My main concern is that when we make the regulations, they should take us a step forward towards greater safety for consumers, giving them more information and generally making toiletries in this country much safer.