The FDA and cosmetics — not as safe as you think

Jul 16, 2014 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Image: PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

The beauty aisle may look pristine, but it's more of a jungle than you think.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exists to protect public health by regulating the products we use every day, like food, formula and prescriptions. Even though people sometimes balk at government regulations, it's these very regulations that allow the FDA to recall dangerous products and ban toxic substances from our food and medicine. That's great. I don't want to live in a nation where companies can get away with putting plastic in our food.

The agency also provides oversight for America's giant beauty and cosmetic industry — and unfortunately, with poor results. Where the FDA has power to approve food and drug products before they are sold to consumers, they only regulate cosmetics after they hit the consumer market when they could already be doing damage.

The FDA's limitations on cosmetic oversight

According to Mia Davis, Head of Health & Safety at the consumer-conscious beauty company Beautycounter, "the FDA is virtually powerless to regulate the huge cosmetic industry." Apparently, legislators haven't updated cosmetics regulatory laws since 1938, so the FDA's oversight is extremely restricted. "The agency cannot approve cosmetics before they go to market," explained Davis. "Furthermore, they cannot issue a recall of a problematic product and they cannot require companies to provide safety data on the chemicals they use."

So what does this mean for consumers? Alarmingly, cosmetic companies sneak dangerous substances into the beauty products that we use every day. And we're not just talking lipstick and mascara. Davis clarified that the term "cosmetics" actually comprises a whole host of household products, like makeup, deodorant and even baby shampoo.

The down low on the dangers of unregulated cosmetics

The dangers associated with certain cosmetics aren't exactly trivial, either. Davis went on to explain that chronic exposure to toxic ingredients is linked to serious problems, like cancer, infertility, learning disorders and behavioral problems. We're not talking about a little skin rash here and there, after all — cancer and infertility are major concerns for public health and welfare.

Davis suggested that consumers become familiar with Beautycounter's "Never List," so they can keep an eye on cosmetic ingredients that are majorly risky. If you don't have the time to memorize the "Never List," she said, "steer clear of undisclosed 'fragrance,' which can contain dozens or even hundreds of toxic chemicals." Davis also said to avoid angry-sounding ingredients like 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde. These will not appear on an ingredient list because under the 1938 cosmetics laws, they're considered "contaminants." Consumers, therefore, need to look for ingredients that contain these contaminants, like quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, sodium laureth sulfate and PEG compounds.

The final word on cosmetic safety

More than anything, consumers need to realize that they have to safeguard their own health if the FDA cannot or will not properly regulate cosmetic ingredients. "It is perfectly legal for cosmetics companies to use chemicals that we know can cause harm, as well as chemicals that have never been assessed for safety," stated Davis. The good news, though, is that we can do something about it. "We need to arm ourselves with more information about toxic chemicals — read the labels, spread the word and let's move public policy toward safer chemicals and products." Our health and beauty are worth it.

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