Jannush Micci
by on July 4, 2019

The FDA’s oversight powers on cosmetics are so weak, even the industry is complaining.

The beauty industry has come a long way since the days of arsenic scrubs and lead-based face creams. But maybe it hasn’t come far enough. Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmedthat asbestos — a known carcinogen that’s unsafe at any level — had been found in eye shadow, foundation, and other make-up products marketed to pre-teen girls. Even worse, because the FDA had no power to force a recall, some tainted products may have remained on sale at malls across America long after reports of danger emerged.

It didn’t have to happen this way. The tale of the asbestos-tainted makeup shines a bright light on the failures of cosmetics regulation, which is so lax even the industry itself is pushing for stronger oversight.

While FDA regulations forbid “poisonous” and “filthy, putrid, or decomposed” substances in cosmetics, the agency knows remarkably little about what’s in beauty products. Cosmetics companies aren’t required to report their ingredients, where their factories are, or even that they exist. Except for color additives, the FDA neither tests cosmetics before they go to market nor requires companies to do their own testing. The asbestos-laden products might have gone undiscovered had a Rhode Island mother not sent her six-year-old daughter’s glitter makeup kit to a lab.

What’s more, once the FDA learned of the tainted makeup, it had no authority to force a recall. It could only request that retailers do it themselves. One chain, Claire’s, “refused to comply” with the request, the agency said in a remarkable name-and-shame press release in March — more than a year after the independent lab first identified problems. Claire’s issued a recallshortly thereafter, but it was not to be the last. The chain pulled another children’s makeup kit from the shelves earlier this month. The cause, again, was asbestos.

The current regime of self-policing isn’t good enough. The FDA has been calling for stronger oversight for years — and now Congress may be willing to act. The bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act, introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins, would give the FDA recall authority over dangerous cosmetics, tell companies to make their full ingredient lists public, and instruct the FDA to run safety tests on at least five ingredients found in personal care products each year. Leading cosmetics firms such as Estée Lauder Co. are advocating for the bill alongside the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Working Group.

Some advocates wish the bill went further, and with reason. The measure wouldn’t require all cosmetics to undergo pre-market testing, as it should. The reformed system would still be far less stringent than the European Union’s, which has banned more than 1,000 ingredients in personal care products. And the law would prevent states from adopting stricter laws (though current state standards would be grandfathered in).

Federal regulation could and should be further improved in future. For now, though, compared to almost no oversight at all, the bill is a big step forward. It deserves to be supported.

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