Five Ways the FDA Is Failing to Protect You
Time for a little policy talk, and a quick clarification: The Food and Drug Administration is as powerful as Congress makes it. So the headline is a little misleading (as most headlines are). It's not the FDA's fault, per se, that it can't protect you from your personal care products—the agency is as powerful as the laws it enforces. The bad news is, those laws don't make them very powerful at all, leaving lots of room for enterprising businesses to use any and every ingredient under the sun in their products. And do they ever!
At the same time, as consumers, there's an implicit trust that when you buy a personal care product—be it shampoo, mascara, baby wash, or shaving cream—that it has been vetted for safety by some publicly accountable health agency. And we're here to tell you that's not the case.
Last month, three Congresspeople introduced a landmark bill—the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010—which, if it were passed into law, would change all this. You can show your support for the bill by writing to your members of Congress. (How to do that, here.) In the meantime, there are some things you should know...
This is a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt.
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Illustrations by Brianna Harden
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Companies are not required to register their existence—or their ingredients—with the FDA. Some do, once their products go to market—and kudos to them—but what the FDA's rather small Office of Cosmetics and Colors actually does with that data is a mystery (to us, anyway). If you and I want to get together and start a company, we can! We can put ketchup in it if we want to, and stuff from our high school chemistry lab, and no one at the FDA has to know about it.
The FDA does not have the power to recall products. Let's say you get some shampoo and it gives you a really bad rash. Or your kid plays with your shaving cream and gets sick. Or you fiddle with your nailpolish remover and it burns your skin. The FDA, even when alerted, can't force the company to recall the product. Companies can voluntarily recall cosmetics if they want to, and the FDA may let you know about it, but if you look at the list of recall alerts listed on the FDA's site, you'll have a hard time finding many cosmetics. If you have a bad reaction you should definitely let them know, though, because the manufacturers don't have to.
The FDA does not test or approve products before they hit the shelves. Let's just get this one in their own words here, because it's alarming, but also pretty straightforward: "Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives." Moving on...
There are only eight ingredients in the whole chemical universe banned for use in cosmetics. Among them, mercury compounds, vinyl chloride, zirconium in aerosol products, chloroform, and a few others. Eight total. Europe, meanwhile, has banned or restricted more than 1,000 ingredients for personal care products. When you consider that more than 10,000 ingredients are listed in the industry-used cosmetics ingredient dictionary, that eight starts to seem awfully small.
The FDA does not require that fragrance ingredients be listed on labels. In its Cosmetic Labeling Guide, FDA says that fragrance “may be declared... as 'fragrance.'" Read "may be" as "pretty much always is" and you get a better idea how this works. The problem with fragrance is that that word alone represents an average of 14 other ingredients, some of which, according to the recent EWG report, are "associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many [of which] have not been assessed for safety in personal care products."