While cases like Wen put people on high alert, it is difficult to steer clear of potentially toxic products. Every day the average person uses nine personal care products, according to a survey by the Environmental Working Group. With most personal product ingredient lists taking up an unpronounceable paragraph, it can be a daunting area for consumers to navigate. Especially when something like the Wen lawsuit provides a reminder that personal care products are barely regulated in the US.
There currently is no independent testing of ingredients in beauty products. However, if a particular cosmetic product is causing serious health issues, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will step in with a consumer warning, as was the case with Wen. The FDA issued a public warning last month, saying that the company failed to address safety concerns. Wen, however, has persisted in saying that its products are safe, despite the FDA’s objections and the company’s own decision to settle the class action suit.
In a statement, the FDA said that it could do little else to compel the company:“We do not have the legal authority to require a cosmetics firm to provide product safety information.”
The only FDA regulation of the cosmetic industry dates back to a few rules adopted in 1938 that have remained largely unchanged, leaving the cosmetic industry effectively self regulating. That self regulation allows cosmetic companies to voluntarily report adverse effects from their products to the FDA.
In Wen’s case, 127 instances of adverse effects were reported to the FDA, a fraction of the around 21,000 complaints made to the company.
While cosmetic ingredients have not changed dramatically in the past 50 years, various additives in personal care products have received scrutiny in recent years. When there is a lot of attention around a cosmetic ingredient, companies will sometimes look to replace it with an alternative to avoid controversy. That can create new issues, as replacement ingredients have often been studied less than what they’re designed to supplant.
In the case of Wen, its products were advertised specifically as not having sulfates or detergents, as there have been public objections to their safety.
The FDA doesn’t require full ingredients lists to be made public, so it is still unclear what chemicals might have prompted consumers’ hair loss, but it’s possible that one of the substitutes was the issue.
Another way the beauty industry has responded to a lot of the concerns around its ingredients is by marketing “natural” cosmetic and hair care lines. But because the term “natural” is not regulated, it doesn’t mean anything.
“Natural is a marketing trick to get people to pay more,” says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and a co-founder of The Beauty Brains, a blog about the ingredients in cosmetics. “Cosmetics are not natural: there is nothing natural about them.”
New legislation might help address the regulatory gap. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Susan Collins have proposed legislation that would give the FDA the power to issue recalls and conduct their own safety tests of ingredients found in cosmetics.
While lobbyists fight it out in Washington, Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group, has a few words of advice for consumers. It’s best if you can use single-ingredient alternatives, says Leiba, but she allows that not everyone can use something like coconut oil for all their skincare needs. She says reducing the number of products used everyday or using products with fewer ingredients, like those without artificial fragrances, can be another strategy.
If a person is worried about the ingredients in their makeup, says Romanowski, not using products is another way to alleviate that worry. After all, he points out, there is “no health benefit in using cosmetics”.
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