The XX Factor

The FDA Can’t Recall Dangerous Cosmetics, and the Industry Wants to Keep It That Way

The FDA can’t recall any hair care product, even if it makes people’s hair fall out.

Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Think all the ingredients in your shampoo and moisturizer have been tested for safety? Think again. A frustrating article in Tuesday’s New York Times illustrates how little regulation there is of the cosmetics industry, and how far some cosmetic companies are willing to go to keep it that way.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Susan Collins are sponsoring a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration the mandate to test and recall dangerous cosmetic products.* Currently, the FDA can only encourage companies to voluntarily recall products, and then only if a product was mislabeled or contaminated. The Times illustrates the insufficiency of this approach with the story of Wen Hair Care, a line of “revolutionary” hair cleansers that have allegedly made consumers’ hair fall out. (The mother of an 11-year-old girl profiled in the article said her daughter went completely bald after using Wen products three times.) Wen has not been required to report any of the 21,000 consumer complaints it’s received to the FDA, and the FDA cannot force Wen to stop selling its products, despite the alleged scale of the hair fall-out fallout.

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Many large cosmetic companies, like Estée Lauder and Johnson & Johnson, decided to support the Feinstein-Collins bill “after becoming increasingly concerned that a decline in consumer confidence could hurt their sales.” But a trade group called Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors, which collects dues from smaller cosmetic companies (including the manufacturer of Wen), has lobbied to keep the FDA toothless. Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who has accepted more donations from the cosmetics industry than any other member of Congress, has introduced an alternative bill that would keep the FDA from being able to recall dangerous cosmetics.

The comments section on the Times article is filled with (apparently genuine) testimonies from people who love Wen products, which is an important reminder that not all adverse reactions to cosmetics are universal. The frustrating reality of skin and haircare products is that one person’s holy grail is another person’s nightmare—individual sensitivities differ, and a product shouldn’t necessarily be recalled because it causes a few rashes or breakouts. (A product that causes tens of thousands of adverse reactions should at least be closely scrutinized, however.)

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But no one is suggesting that the FDA should rule the availability of cosmetic products with an iron fist. The Feinstein-Collins bill would simply give the FDA more information about adverse reactions that are being reported to manufacturers and the ability to remove products from the market that are causing wide-scale problems. Best of all, “the bill would collect about $20 million in fees annually from beauty care companies to help cover the cost of confirming the safety of about five ingredients each year that are suspected of causing problems.” Currently, there’s not nearly enough independent safety testing of cosmetic ingredients, which leaves consumers confused and susceptible to fearmongering about ingredients like parabens. It’s a no-brainer that the federal agency charged with regulating food, drugs, and medical devices should have a mandate to determine the safety of ingredients being used in cosmetics and to pull unsafe products from the shelves.

Now, how about giving the FDA more oversight of vitamins and supplements?

Correction, August 16: This post originally misidentified Senator Susan Collins as a Democrat. She is a Republican.

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