To understand why Bill S-5 is momentous, you need to first understand a little about CEPA. CEPA is Canada's most important environmental law. It is a gargantuan law. It's the cornerstone of Canada's environmental legislation, regulating everything from vehicle emissions and toxic substances to the ingredients in your sunscreen.
It's that last bit, the regulation of ingredients in personal care products, that clean beauty brands and activists have honed in on — because they think the regulations surrounding them are lacking.
"People in Canada assume that the government is testing products before they're allowed to be sold in Canada," explains Cassie Barker, Toxics Senior Program Manager at Environmental Defence. "They assume that if it's on a shelf, it must be safe. And that assumption should be right; that should be the correct assumption."
However, that's not always the case.
In Canada, we have something called a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. This hotlist prohibits or restricts just over 600 ingredients for use in cosmetics. While 600 ingredients may seem comprehensive, the E.U. has banned or restricted more than 1,400 cosmetic ingredients. The U.S., on the other hand, has only banned 30.
The beauty industry is "being allowed to do too much when it comes to loopholes and the ingredients they're allowed to put into products," argues Barker.
The beauty industry is "being allowed to do too much when it comes to loopholes and the ingredients they're allowed to put into products."Cassie Barker, Environmental Defence
In 2021, researchers analyzed 231 makeup products from the U.S. and Canada, including 17 Canadian products, and found PFAS in 52 per cent of the items sampled.
Scientists often refer to PFAS, a collection of toxic chemicals known as Per - and polyfluoroalkyl substances, as "forever chemicals" as they can take years or decades to break down.
Somewhat more concerning is PFAS have linked to an increased risk of cancers, reduced immune response and fertility, altered metabolism and increased risk of obesity in animals and humans. The journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters explains that PFAS in cosmetics "may pose a risk to human health through direct and indirect exposure, as well as a risk to ecosystem health throughout the lifecycle of these products."
Some cosmetic retailers in Canada, like Sephora, do not include PFAS in their "Clean Beauty" category. The "Clean at Sephora" seal is given to products formulated without parabens, sulphates SLS and SLES, phthalates, mineral oils, formaldehyde and more.
However, PFAS-containing cosmetics and personal care products are still readily available to Canadians, which is why advocates like Barker are fighting for universal clean beauty.
"We don't want people to have to buy their way out of exposures," she tells Yahoo Canada. "Healthy, clean products — that should be the norm."
Clean beauty brands like Beautycounter have made it their mission to fight for safety in beauty. The California-based company has spent the better part of a decade lobbying lawmakers across the U.S. and Canada to toughen up regulations on risky or iffy ingredients.
The brand has even created its own "The Never List," which is made up of more than 2,800 questionable or harmful chemicals that it won't use in its products.
"We want to make sure we're making the playbook for the industry," explains Jen Lee, chief impact officer at Beautycounter. "We're showing that it's possible to have luxurious, efficacious products that aren't going to do damage to you, your health or the environment."
"Clean beauty should be all beauty."Jen Lee, Beautycounter
"Clean beauty should be all beauty," she says. "The onus [for change] shouldn't be on the customer."
While scant compared to our American and European counterparts, the Canadian cosmetics industry is nothing to scoff at. The Canadian cosmetics market is estimated to be worth $1.42 billion USD and is expected to grow to $1.7 billion USD by 2027.
The growing industry furthers the argument for universal clean beauty, explains Lee. She gives the example of paraben-free personal care products and says that once consumers demand a certain level of clean beauty, "the industry has no choice" but to meet it.
CEPA's first comprehensive update since 1999
After years of advocating for stronger toxics laws, Cassie Barker is celebrating the passage of Bill S-5 — the Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act in the House of the Commons.
The bill's passing is a "significant milestone" in the campaign to "protect people and the environment from toxic chemicals and pollution," she writes.
While it's far from perfect, the bill ensures every Canadian has a right to a healthy environment for the first time under federal law. Bill S-5 also ensures substances that are carcinogenic, toxic to reproduction, or mutagenic will be prioritized for ban or restriction.
Chemicals with hazardous properties that haven't been assessed yet or are not in widespread use will be added to a watchlist, and the bill includes new timelines for action and requirements for transparency, according to Environmental Defence.
"The passing of Bill S-5 in the House is progress worth celebrating," Barker writes. "But there is still more work that needs to be done."