Rethinking Chemical Risk: The Essential-Use Approach

Article Author: Merin Thomas, Public Health Major, Class of 2026, POB Science Translator 

What’s in your shampoo? You may struggle to list even a few ingredients off the top of your head beyond fragrance. By reading blog posts such as those found on our page, or other online articles, you can gain an understanding of the chemicals in both products and their packaging. 

This January, a group of experts in government, academia, and non-profit work focused on chemical risk and management, published a paper that expands on a simpler strategy for evaluating chemicals in the marketplace. Titled “Optimizing Chemicals Management in the United States and Canada through the Essential-Use Approach,” the article centers on a management strategy focused on restricting chemical use to only substances deemed safe and absolutely necessary. Although this initial policy was proposed almost a half-century ago, it has garnered renewed attention as policymakers from the European Union and Maine have used it to regulate PFAs. PFAs are known to belong to the group of ‘forever chemicals,’ or chemicals that do not quickly break down and have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. 

Although the Essential Use Approach has already helped curtail the use of PFAs worldwide, experts highlight the importance of creating a streamlined system when applying its principles on a larger scale. As such, the authors of the article contend that businesses and governments should focus on asking three main questions when deciding whether to enter a chemical into the supply chain: is it necessary for the product, is it the safest feasible option, and is it necessary for the health, safety, and functioning of society? (Bǎlan et al., 2023) If the chemical in question does not get a “yes” to all of the three criteria, it either will never receive approval to enter the market, or a plan will be made to phase it out as soon as possible. In both cases, products will be reformulated to remove unnecessary chemicals and incorporate safer alternatives. 

The study makes note that the measure of harm will depend on who is assessing a chemical. For example, in the United States government, the Environmental Protection Agency focuses on environmental risk, whereas the Center for Disease Control focuses on human health risks; these organizations will assess chemicals accordingly. Thus, the authors encourage that a variety of groups should be engaged in the policymaking process, including government agencies, businesses, and the public. By doing so, governments can create more clear and comprehensive definitions for terms such as “safe” and “necessary” in Essential-Use policies.

The article’s authors assert that applying the essential-use approach has many benefits across the board. For example, it can hasten decision-making of chemical regulation for policymakers by allowing them to avoid “analysis paralysis,” a current phenomenon observed when regulators such as the Federal Drug Administration have to comb through mounds of information to try and determine if even a single chemical is worth removing from the market. Similarly, it also may save businesses from liability and associated expenses due to relying on chemicals linked to cancers, among other adverse health outcomes. As consumers, these benefits all reach us, as we may be able to put more trust that the products on our shelves, from the shampoo bottle to the shampoo itself, are safer.

At Protect Our Breasts, we will continue to educate on the chemicals in circulation and encourage businesses and manufacturers to create a safer marketplace. We are grateful to the authors for the essential-use approach, as it may mean a healthier future is on the horizon.


Bǎlan, S. A., Andrews, D. Q., Blum, et al. Optimizing Chemicals Management in the United States and Canada through the Essential-Use Approach. Environmental Science & Technology (2023)., 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein is the author’s opinion. Our authors are not scientists. We are not providing medical advice, but simply sharing publicly available information. When we reference data and databases, we do so with the caveat that most are only as good as the data they are based on. While POB strives to make the information as timely and accurate as possible, we make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the completeness, or adequacy of the contents of any site that is shared, and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in the contents of these sites. POB goes to great lengths to avoid declaring shared products as “safe” as there is no legal definition of the word “safe” at this time.

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