The Slatest

Cosmetics Regulation Is a Joke, but Senate Bill Could Finally Fix That

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Safety should be in the hands of the government.

Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

When you powder your nose, gloss your lips, or tint your eyelashes, you’re trusting the makeup industry not to poison you or lace its products with something gross, like bull semen. But should you? In reality, the Food and Drug Administration does nothing to ensure your makeup won’t harm you. What’s worse, it never has.  

Thankfully, the New York Times reported this week that a bipartisan bill aims to finally give the FDA broader authority to better regulate the cosmetics industry. Co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Susan Collins of Maine, the new legislation would empower the FDA to protect consumers by recalling dangerous products and demanding that companies report health hazards. But why didn’t the FDA have that capability in the first place?

When the FDA was founded, the cosmetics industry lobbied heavily to keep the government agency from regulating it, and they very much succeeded. “Eighty years ago, it was decided that the FDA would not look into cosmetics,” says Mark Schapiro, a senior correspondent at the Center for Investigative Reporting and the author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s At Stake For American Power.* “Even if it wanted to, it would have no mechanism to do so.”

Recently, the FDA has been scandalized by a series of reports unearthing the fact that former industry insiders are now the very same people reviewing the safety of your food and nutritional supplements. The cosmetics industry, however, has a more basic problem: There is no regulation whatsoever. Since the FDA’s founding in 1938, there have been major advancements in our knowledge about what the carcinogens, mutagens, and toxins used in cosmetics do to our bodies. Yet the FDA remains helpless to respond to them.

Among the things the FDA currently can’t do, according to the Times: Force recalls of dangerous products (it can only ask companies to do so voluntarily) and require manufacturers to disclose serious adverse health effects such as “death, disfigurement, or hospitalization.” Feinstein and Collins’ bill would fix that, enabling the FDA to make companies report these sorts of incidents within 15 business days. “In many ways, this bill would plug an enormous hole in the regulatory fabric of the United States,” Schapiro told me.

If passed, the bill would also mandate that the FDA review five chemicals for safety annually, including propylparaben, lead acetate, and methylene glycol (which releases formaldehyde). That’s reassuring, since those chemicals are highly controversial and in many cases dangerous. “When you look at the caustic properties of these substances, it’s astonishing that they’re in cosmetics at all,” Schapiro says. “The very fact that we have to demand that the FDA test and assess the toxicity of chemicals like this—which the body of scientific knowledge asserts are toxic to the human body—is very telling.”

This is in stark contrast to the way the European Union handles cosmetics in its 28 countries. In Europe, Schapiro explained in Exposed, potential toxins are generally considered guilty until proven innocent; in the U.S., the opposite holds true.

Yet it would be unfair to say that America is alone in its lack of regulation over its cosmetics industry. In fact, other countries including China, Malaysia, Senegal, Cameroon, and Paraguay face similar problems. The difference is that “these are countries that have very few resources to regulate anything,” Schapiro says. “When it comes to our standards of regulating toxins in cosmetics, we might as well be a developing country.”

*Correction, April 22, 2015: This post originally misstated that Mark Schapiro is a senior correspondent at the Center for Investigative Reporting. He is a former senior correspondent there.