A widely touted state program to give the public more information about harmful chemicals in cosmetics is falling short of its mission, hobbled by a lack of participation from the cosmetics industry, outdated information and a loophole that lets companies keep their ingredients secret.
Experts say the shortcomings of the California Safe Cosmetics Program Product Database, which went online a month ago, reveal the challenges the state faces in trying to impose transparency on a national $60 billion industry that had been allowed to keep harmful ingredients off product labels.
"There are companies that haven't been reporting to the state the ingredients that we should know about," said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at advocacy group Women's Voices for the Earth.
Health and environmental advocates had hoped the state's 9-year-old effort to document and expose hazardous chemicals in cosmetics -- the first initiative of its kind by a government agency -- would empower consumers and pressure companies to reformulate personal care products.
Instead, the database missed the Jan. 1 deadline and publicly launched more than a week later, missing data from possibly hundreds of cosmetics companies that are circumventing the law or failing to update their ingredients on the site, according to a range of cosmetics experts. And some cosmetics manufacturers are using a workaround in the online reporting system -- which the cosmetics industry helped to design -- that allows them to keep harmful ingredients private by declaring them "trade secrets."
A database search reveals that more than 1,440 products -- about 5 percent of the database -- have dangerous ingredients marked as trade secrets, which means consumers have no way to know what the substance is.
"Trade secrets are issued to prevent disclosure," said Harold Zeliger, a chemist and nationally recognized expert on toxins in cosmetics. "My hope was that when this (law) went into effect it would ultimately drive changes across the nation. So why are they given a pass on this?"
The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 requires companies that sell in California and have more than $1 million per year in worldwide sales to report carcinogens and reproductive toxins they use in products. The state is looking for about 900 chemicals that have been judged harmful by Proposition 65 and organizations such as the National Toxicology Program and Environmental Protection Agency.
The database, mandated by that legislation, faces other limitations that can be traced back to the state's underfunding of the ambitious project, said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund, who was involved in drafting the bill.
"They are limping along mostly through sheer will and determination," Nudelman said. "They never had the funding they needed."
The Safe Cosmetics Program receives about $320,000 a year in state funding, according to the Department of Finance. That paid to launch the website, public health officials said. But in public presentations given in 2009 and 2010, the program's leaders highlighted the lack of funding as an ongoing challenge. Other health advocates say there is not enough money to investigate cosmetics products and police companies that may be out of compliance -- which the law says are also the state's responsibility.
Some information on the site has not been updated since 2009, and the database lists products not for sale anymore or with incorrect ingredients, according to cosmetics manufacturers. And it appears a number of companies have failed to report their ingredients. After five years of collecting data, the site includes about 475 manufacturers, the health department says. While the state has no way to track the number of companies that sell cosmetics in California, just one nonprofit, the San Francisco-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, works with at least 2,000.
If the health department learns a company that is required to report has not done so, it "will contact the company whose name is on the product and request that it report," spokesman Matt Conens said in an email. The law also requires that manufacturers tell the state about changes in their products.
But health advocates say among the program's most serious, and baffling, shortcomings is that the very database intended to identify ingredients long concealed from consumers instead allows companies to avoid disclosing them.
Companies are using an option in the self-reporting system that allows them to declare ingredients trade secrets, which means they are disclosed to some state officials but not to the public. Trade secrets are established through the Food and Drug Administration, but starting in 2009, the state accepted all claims of trade secret status without asking for proof.
"You had the option to check 'trade secret' and then you didn't have to fill out all the information," said Ann Latendresse, a spokeswoman for Great Clips, a hair salon chain that sells its own brand of hair products, "It was just easier. It was just a box you could check."
Great Clips claimed trade secrets for nine of its 13 products on the website, though Latendresse admitted the company doesn't actually have trade secrets.
The Department of Public Health "initially accepts this claim and identifies it as 'trade secret' in the database, thus protecting it from public release. We will then follow up with the company to remind them to submit documentation to support their trade secret claim," Conens said.
Last fall, Conens said, the department began sending letters to companies asking for those documents.
When contacted this month by this newspaper, Great Clips said it would begin correcting its entries in the database; the company said it had not been asked by the state to make any changes.
"Now that the site is live to the public, we want them to have the correct information," Latendresse said.
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.