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Outdated safety rules for the $70 billion cosmetics industry must be overhauled

The FDA has no power to review personal-care products before they go on sale

Published: March 2014

Shampoo and other cosmetics products hit the market without any review by the FDA.

Cosmetics and personal-care products are a booming business. Americans are expected to spend more than $70 billion this year on shampoo, baby lotion, mascara, and countless other products.

When you buy that can of shaving cream or jar of skin cream, you expect it to be safe, as do most Americans: A 2011 Deloitte survey found that 57 percent of respondents said safety was their number one concern when buying personal-care products.

You’re right to have concerns, since the federal government has very limited authority over the safety of the products being produced by what is a largely self-regulated industry. What’s more, safety laws for cosmetics are essentially the same ones we’ve had since the Great Depression.

The Food and Drug Administration lacks the power to review personal-care products before they go on sale. And manufacturers aren’t required to list all ingredients on packaging or to report adverse health reactions consumers have to their products, which makes it extremely difficult for FDA to detect problems.

These outdated rules have left American consumers in more of a buyer-beware situation that our counterparts in Europe, where standards for cosmetics are much stronger.

For more than a year now, the FDA has been trying to change that, and has launched negotiations with cosmetics firms to overhaul the old regulations. The talks raised hopes for a deal that would deliver real reforms. Last summer, the FDA and cosmetics industry agreed to a detailed framework for legislation that would grant the agency greater authority to ensure these products are safe.

Cosmetics safety laws haven't changed much since the Great Depression.

But the negotiations appeared to fall apart this month after industry groups reportedly put forth a counterproposal that the FDA said would reduce the little authority it has now to take action against dangerous cosmetics. In a sharply worded letter to the groups, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor expressed “profound disappointment” in their proposal, which he said “could put Americans at greater risk from cosmetic-related illness and injury than they are today.”

Taylor dismissed the industry’s draft bill as one “that creates the appearance of a modernized cosmetics regime, but a reality that actually prevents federal and State governments from protecting Americans from unsafe cosmetics.”

The industry groups countered that their proposals were being mischaracterized and denied that they wanted to weaken federal authority over cosmetics. While the talks might have stalled, we at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, sincerely hope a final deal can be reached that puts more stringent rules in place.

We’re pleased to see the FDA take such a strong, pro-consumer stance on this issue. A multibillion-dollar industry that produces thousands of items that people use every day should have greater oversight when it comes to safety. We firmly believe cosmetics companies should step up and support a regulatory structure that’s up-to-date for the 21st century, so their customers can shop with confidence and peace of mind.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.


Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.


   

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