Senate Holds Hearing on Cosmetics Safety, Signaling Shift to Better Protect Consumers

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy

A senate hearing committee on Thursday focused on how to make cosmetics safer for consumers and workers. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee of the Senate held a hearing Thursday morning on the practices and the safety of ingredients currently allowed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in cosmetics. Presently, the FDA has no authority to review or confirm the safety of ingredients and fragrances in cosmetics before they enter the market — and it has no authority to remove products from the market, even after they’ve been shown to cause harm.

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act — federal regulation of the ingredients and methods of labeling and use used by the cosmetic industry — has not been updated since it was passed in 1938.

In her opening remarks at the hearing on Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the HELP Committee, pointed to the recent problems with the WEN hair care product line as a prime example of why it’s time for Congress to provide additional regulation of the cosmetics industry.

As Murray noted in her remarks, the FDA only “began examining the WEN products after it received over 100 adverse event reports of hair loss and severe damage. Shockingly, the FDA’s investigation uncovered over 21,000 more consumer complaints reported to the company.”

And yet, Murray noted, “Unlike the law governing drugs and medical devices, [WEN] had no legal obligation to share these complaints with the FDA. And even now, after the FDA is aware of these complaints, the agency does not have the authority to remove the products from the market. As of this morning, even after the FDA safety alert and press coverage of hair loss issues, the WEN website makes no clear mention of the potential side effects of their products to allow consumers and families to make an informed choice. So this is an issue that affects everyone.”

During the hearing, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., posed a line of questions to the panel of experts called to testify that underscored the importance of thinking about cosmetics not only from a consumer standpoint, but also from a labor standpoint. Franken highlighted, for example, the extreme health consequences suffered by many nail salon technicians, as illustrated in a recent New York Times investigation into salons and their practices. Franken emphasized that under present law, salon workers are not only being exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals, but also may not even know which chemicals they are being exposed to due to a lack of labeling requirements for products.

As stated in the New York Times article, these workers — who are primarily women, even more specifically, minority women — are suffering from miscarriages, struggling to conceive, and giving birth to children born with birth defects and lifelong developmental delays, all as a result of the products they’re handling, legally, each day at work.

“Every day, we all interface with products that are regulated — or not regulated — by the FDA,” a staffer in Franken’s office tells Yahoo Beauty. “You want to make sure that these products are safe and effective. People need to trust that the products they are buying off the shelf and putting on themselves, their children, their loved ones are safe. On a basic level, this is about trust. Consumers need to be able to trust these products. … And people think if it’s on the shelf, it’s safe to use. And we’ve seen that’s not always the case. The FDA has the unique position to get information from a broader array of sources. Today’s hearing and the examples raised highlight why we need federal oversight and research on products.”

To that end, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, have proposed the Personal Care Products Safety Act, the first real federal reevaluation since 1938 of the way cosmetics are regulated. Under the bill, at least five chemicals per year would be evaluated by the FDA to determine whether they are safe, and if so, to identify the appropriate concentrations to maintain consumer safety. The bill would also provide the FDA with mandatory recall authority, and it would require labeling of products that include ingredients not appropriate for children and other vulnerable populations and those that should only be administered by professionals. In addition, companies would be required to report to the FDA within 15 days serious health events — including death, hospitalization, and disfigurement — and health effects that could result in hospitalization without early intervention. Under the bill, all manufacturers must register with the FDA and provide ingredient information to the agency for all of its products, and the act would issue FDA-approved manufacturing best practices for companies to follow.

The bill also specifies that the first five ingredients to be reviewed by the FDA would be methylene glycol/formaldehyde (used in hair-smoothing treatments), lead acetate (a color additive in hair dyes), propyl paraben (a preservative in many liquid cosmetics like shampoo, conditioner, and lotions), diazolidinyl urea (another preservative often found in shampoos, conditioners, and deodorants), and quaternium-15 (yet another preservative frequently found in skin creams and cleansers). Of these five chemicals, four are already restricted for use in cosmetics and personal care products with concentration limits set by the European Union (EU); lead acetate, the fifth, is banned in the EU.  

Julie Fredrickson is the co-founder and CEO of Stowaway Cosmetics, a cosmetics line launched in 2015 that manufactures its products in accordance with the 1,300 ingredients banned under EU law, as opposed to the mere 11 ingredients presently banned in the U.S. Fredrickson shared with Yahoo Beauty that she was “pleased and relieved” to learn of today’s Senate hearing on cosmetics safety.

“As a businesswoman, I’m often concerned about burdensome regulations and overreach of government,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “Bureaucratic red tape can make it more difficult for smaller brands and independent businesses to thrive, but this is a rare case in which we have an appalling lack of standards that genuinely puts consumers at risk and benefits the large incumbents who take advantage of the opacity of ingredient standards and lack of consumer education to peddle products with dubious ingredient safety.”

Fredrickson adds: “Consumers deserve to know more about the ingredients in their beauty products and which brands and products are safest for their families. Pushing for more transparency will benefit brands and consumers both and make the cosmetics industry more competitive, which is always positive.” 

Let’s keep in touch! Follow Yahoo Beauty on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

What to Read Next