Since the passing of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the U.S. cosmetics industry–currently valued at $62 billion–has been under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This Act, a 112-page law passed in 1938, provides exactly one full page detailing the regulation of cosmetics, and according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics "provides virtually no power to perform even the most rudimentary functions to ensure the safety" of the enormous industry. While food and pharmaceuticals tend to face stringent regulations–think Taco Bell and their not-allowed-to-call-this-beef mystery sludge–cosmetics have been virtually regulation-free for the past 80 years. Most cosmetics don't even need FDA approval, and are largely self-regulated by the companies that produce them.
While this lack of restrictions may be unsurprising to people familiar with the industry, stranger still are the rules about reporting customer complaints. For example, if a certain chemical in your mascara is causing your eyelashes to fall out and you file a complaint with the manufacturer, the company has no legal obligation to report this to the FDA. It's within the manufacturer's rights to keep that information private and do with it as they see fit. In short, even if a makeup company is poisoning people, there are no laws requiring them to recall their products.
This stuff'll kill ya
A real life example of this, is the scandal surrounding WEN Hair Care, a company founded by celebrity hairstylist Chaz Dean. In 2014, the FDA opened a file on them after receiving 127 customer complaints about WEN's products causing hair loss. The subsequent investigation revealed that more than 21,000 complaints had gone unreported. Years later, the FDA still doesn't know what ingredient caused the alleged hair loss, and following an internal clinical trial by WEN, the company is once again touting their products as safe. Obviously, from a public relations standpoint the damage has been done and no amount of testimonials are going to fix WEN's image. Still, the fact that after a $26 million class-action lawsuit WEN and the FDA don't know what ingredient caused the hair loss borders on absurdity. For reference, try imagining how well that would go over for a company selling anti-inflammatories.
Hair loss from WEN productsPeople Magazine
This isn't the only way in which the beauty industry dodges regulations however. There are certain terms, like organic and hypoallergenic that while not completely devoid of meaning, have very wide parameters governing their use. The word organic as it pertains to foods/cosmetics, isn't regulated by the FDA, but rather the National Organic Program (NOP), a subsection of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While the USDA is a federal department, its primary focus, as its name implies, is agriculture. Regarding cosmetics, all the USDA can really do is determine whether or not the plants from which the ingredients are harvested, are organically (meaning pesticide/GMO-free) grown. Since the USDA has no jurisdiction over the process with which makeup and other cosmetics are made, the organic label means very little. The term hypoallergenic definition is even looser, as in the FDA's own website says there are no federal regulations surrounding the use of hypoallergenic on packaging. The word essentially means nothing.
Lead-based makeup was all the rage...like literally, the lead poisoning drove people insane.
When looking back at pre-industrial beauty trends, it's easy to look at the lead-based makeup of the 17th and 18th centuries that poisoned so many royals, and write it off as primitive, but our startling lack of legislation designed to protect present-day makeup consumers might be leave us in a similar predicament. As recently as two months ago, the FDA had been investigating Claire's, under the suspicion that their foundation contains tremolite. Tremolite has been linked to lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, and is an extremely dangerous poison.
All this said, most makeup and skincare products won't kill you and are perfectly safe to use regularly. The purpose of this article isn't to be unnecessarily alarmist, but rather to illustrate the dangers an unregulated industry can pose to the general public. Unfortunately, barring a major change in legislation, consumers and not the federal government are responsible for ensuring that their cosmetics are safe. So before you go out and buy that new mascara at Sephora or that new face wash from Ulta, do a little research. Check the ingredients and find out if they're dangerous before you buy. It's definitely inconvenient, but most things that are good for you are.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Popdust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff