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What's in Your Lipstick? Women Shouldn't Have to Play Detective in the Makeup Aisle


By Laura Meyer, SWHR Policy Department Intern

Whip out your magnifying glasses and trench coats—it's time to play detective. Not in any dark alleys or smoke-filled offices, but in the cosmetics aisle at the drugstore, the salon and online.

You'll need your magnifying glass to examine the ingredients lists on cosmetics and hair care products. Too often these lists include chemicals tied to negative health effects, from rashes and burns to hormone disruption and even some cancers.

Though most people assume that cosmetics must be tested before they go on the market, the chemicals in these products are not reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and companies do not have to report ingredients or the concentration of chemicals in their products. If something goes wrong, the FDA doesn't have mandatory recall authority for dangerous products.

One unsafe chemical that is far too common in the makeup aisle is the preservative formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer in humans. According to the FDA, one in five cosmetic products contains a substance that generates formaldehyde. Chemicals in this category include:

  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Quaternium-15
  • Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Hydroxymethylglycinate3

Think you can keep an eye out for every one of those every time you buy a product, detective? Most concerning chemicals are used in tiny amounts that are not acutely unsafe, but without more research, no one can know what the long-term effects of these chemicals are on the human body, especially when combined with everyday environmental exposures.

Without FDA oversight, women have to rely on their own vigilance to keep themselves and their families healthy.

On average, American women use 12 personal care products every day. Girls going through puberty and pregnant women are particularly at risk from ingredients associated with cancer, endocrine disruption and birth defects.

Men, who use an average of six personal care products daily, are affected as well, because nearly the entire personal care products industry—from shaving cream to shampoo—is out of the FDA's control.

The current safety oversight of the cosmetics industry is a patchwork of weak federal, state and industry regulations. The last time cosmetics safety regulations were updated was 1938, the same year the modern nylon bristle toothbrush was invented.

Today, the U.S. industry is made up of about 850 companies with more than $40 billion in revenue annually, but it is regulated with the same level of oversight as 77 years ago. As the industry has expanded, the FDA has remained chronically underfunded, today spending only about $8 per American each year to oversee the safety of all of their food, drugs and personal care products.

It is clear that changes are in order to modernize this current system and make it more reflective of consumer expectations. In April, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the Personal Care Product Safety Act. This bill, which enjoys bipartisan support and support from both patient groups and the cosmetics industry, would advance the FDA's ability to protect public health by instituting common sense reforms. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Clarify safe use guidelines of ingredients that haven't been reviewed in decades by requiring the FDA to assess at least five chemical ingredients per year;
  • Require companies to register their facilities, products and ingredients with the FDA;
  • Close labeling loopholes by requiring full ingredient disclosure for salon products and online sales; and
  • Require the reporting of serious adverse events and give the FDA mandatory recall authority to get dangerous products out of the market.

Much of the proposed policies in the bill are already recommended by the FDA and most companies already comply, albeit on a voluntary basis. The bill would standardize regulations across the country, making the industry more stable.

The bill is a vital step toward better protections for the health of women and families, a move that the Society for Women's Health

Research (SWHR) is proud to support. All consumers deserve to be assured of the safety of the products they use every day to live healthy, full lives.

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