New Safety Regulations for Cosmetics — Better Regulated by States

Cosmetics Industry

Story at-a-glance -

  • Congress has proposed a law, the Personal Care Products Safety Act, that would give the FDA authority to test whether chemicals added to personal care products are being used at safe levels
  • The new regulations would require companies to report adverse reactions to their products to the FDA, but those adverse reactions won’t be made publicly available
  • The other glaring issue is that The Personal Care Products Safety Act would preempt state regulations

By Dr. Mercola

If you assume that the ingredients in your favorite cosmetics, from lipstick to body lotion, have been carefully tested for safety and/or toxicity, you're not alone. Many Americans have a false sense of security when it comes to their personal care products.

In reality, the chemicals used in such products are largely unregulated and untested. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not "approve" ingredients for your cosmetics; it may only take action against them if they're found to be harmful, adulterated or misbranded. Even then, it rarely does.

Part of the problem is the cosmetics industry is still operating under the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which allows the industry to police itself. An overhaul is long overdue, but will the newly proposed safety regulations for cosmetics make a difference to public health?

The Personal Care Products Safety Act: New Safety Regulations for Cosmetics

Congress has proposed a law that would give the FDA authority to test whether chemicals added to personal care products are being used at safe levels. If the chemicals are found to exceed "safe" levels, the FDA could force a recall.

The bill, dubbed the Personal Care Products Safety Act, is an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and was introduced in 2015 by Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

The bill includes a system requiring product manufacturers to register their products and ingredients and would require the FDA to review five chemicals in personal care products each year in order to evaluate their safety. The first set of chemicals recommended for testing include:

  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Lead acetate, which is used in hair color kits (especially those for men)
  • Methylene glycol/formaldehyde, used in hair-straightening treatments
  • Propyl paraben
  • Quaternium-15

Hundreds of Years Just to Catch US Cosmetics' Safety Up to European Union Standards

The new cosmetics safety regulations have received some praise, but it's clear they don't go far enough to prompt urgently needed change. Part of the problem is the timeline.

In Europe, more than 1,300 chemicals are banned from use in lotions, soaps, toothpaste, cosmetics and other personal care products. Contrast that to in the U.S., where just 11 are banned.1

If the new regulations are passed and the FDA reviews five ingredients a year, it will take hundreds of years just to catch up to the European Union. There are at least 57,000 chemicals used in personal care products, so testing just five a year is unlikely to result in prompt changes.

Meanwhile, the average U.S. woman uses 12 personal care products and/or cosmetics a day, containing 168 different chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). While most men use fewer products, they're still exposed to about 85 such chemicals daily.2

By the time these chemicals are reviewed for safety, it will be far too late to protect the people using them today.

Why Are Chemical Companies in Favor of New Regulations?

The Personal Care Products Council, which represents 600 cosmetic companies, has rejected many earlier attempts at increased regulation. This time, however, they've fully endorsed the plan.

As STAT put it: "The question is why?"3 When you dig beneath the surface, the new regulations are quite industry friendly. STAT explained:4

" … [T]he Feinstein-Collins proposal is not as tough as it looks on first glance. The result of years of negotiations between Feinstein and, more recently, Collins, with industry lobbyists, consumer groups and company CEOs, the proposal has a few key compromises."

For starters, there's the slow timeline; the FDA is required to review only five chemicals a year. Further, while the new regulations will require companies to report adverse reactions to their products to the FDA, those adverse reactions won't be made publicly available.

If you wanted to find out whether your facial cream has caused serious reactions in others, you'd have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out. The other glaring issue is that The Personal Care Products Safety Act would preempt state regulations.

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Products Continue to Be Sold Even Amidst Claims of Hair Loss

An example of why current regulations are failing can be seen with Wen hair care products. The hair care products are under fire from consumers who claim they caused hair loss, even leading to baldness in as few as three uses.

The company has received more than 21,000 complaints, but since they are not required to report adverse reactions to the FDA, the agency has remained largely unaware.

Only 127 reports have been filed with the FDA and even as Wen's distributer has agreed to a $26.25 million legal settlement (that has yet to be approved by a judge), the products continue to be sold without warning to consumers.5

This isn't meant to call attention to any one product — Wen's makers continue to claim the products are safe — but rather the glaring loopholes that allow potentially harmful products to remain on the market with no action from the FDA.

States Tend to Create Better Regulations Than the Federal Government

Localized regulations at the state level tend to be far more favorable to the public than those made at the federal level. The Personal Care Products Council is undoubtedly in favor of the new regulations because they would override any state laws passed once it is enacted.

As Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told STAT, "States would no longer be able to go above and beyond the federal government on health and safety regulations."6

California, for instance, already has tighter cosmetics regulations than the FDA requires and several states are poised to join them. The new regulations would make this impossible and force California to loosen their cosmetics safety regulations.

One federal standard is far easier, and less expensive, for the cosmetics industry to follow. By ushering in the new regulations, they avoid having to potentially comply with 50 different state standards.

However, in the interest of the people states should always maintain the right to supplement federal laws if such laws are not serving their needs.

FDA Accused Cosmetics Industry of Trying to Undercut Their Authority

Regulators have been in talks with the cosmetics industry for years in attempts to take back some of the control.

In 2014, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor (former VP for public policy at Monsanto) even accused two cosmetic industry trade groups of trying to undercut the FDA's authority with their regulatory proposals, and said their suggestions would "put Americans at greater risk from cosmetics-related illness and injury than they are today."7

At the time, the FDA said they would no longer participate in discussions with the Personal Care Products Council but, now, two years later, it appears the industry has been appeased to the point of supporting the regulatory overhaul.

What remains shocking is the fact that industry is given so much consideration in a situation where the decisions should be made in the interest of public and environmental health, and nothing more.

Janet Nudelman, director of the California-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, told The Washington Post that regulations to preempt state regulations are a "slap in the face" to Americans and continued, "Industry simply should not be calling the shots anymore … They've been calling the shots for over 75 years in what little federal regulation there is."8

Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals, Heavy Metals Are Fair Game in Cosmetics

When EWG tested teens to find out which chemicals in personal care products were found in their bodies, 16 different hormone-altering chemicals, including parabens and phthalates, were detected.9

There are other chemical risks as well. For instance, in 2000 EWG released a study showing that 37 nail polishes from 22 companies contained dibutyl phthalate (DBP). DBP is known to cause lifelong reproductive impairments in male rats, and has been shown to damage the testes, prostate gland, epididymus, penis and seminal vesicles in animals.

It's used in nail polish because it increases flexibility and shine, and research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that all 289 people tested had DBP in their bodies.10 Worse still, this chemical, which is linked to birth defects in animals, was found at the highest levels in women of childbearing age.

Meanwhile, in the report "Heavy Metal Hazard: The Health Risks of Hidden Heavy Metals in Face Makeup,"11 the U.S.-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense tested 49 different makeup items, including foundations, concealers, powders, blushes, mascaras, eye liners, eye shadows, lipsticks and lip glosses. Their testing revealed serious heavy metal contamination in virtually all of the products:

  • 96 percent contained lead
  • 90 percent contained beryllium
  • 61 percent contained thallium
  • 51 percent contained cadmium
  • 20 percent contained arsenic

As it stands, it's very much a buyer-beware market when it comes to using personal care products in the U.S. Ideally, cut down on the number of personal care products you use and stick to those that contain only natural ingredients that you recognize and can pronounce.

Whether you make your own or switch to a truly natural, toxin-free brand, there aremany alternatives to the common, and often toxic, products that line drug store and beauty store shelves — and you might even find that you like them better than your old brand (and your health most certainly will thank you).

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