In 1933, a new mascara was introduced to the market that was meant to give radiant personality: Lash Lure. This product was famous for its ability to eat away at the user’s eye causing debilitating eye pain and blindness because of paraphenylenediamine, a coal tar dye, in the formula. In the ‘30s, there were several products on the market that meant to aid women in the beauty department and instead gifted the buyer with effects ranging from baldness and discoloration to paralysis and blindness due to the use of lead, mercury and coal tar.
In 1938, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed giving the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate cosmetics, limiting the public’s exposure to harmful substances — or one would think, given the title of the law. In actuality, this legislation only allows the FDA to act against cosmetic companies through the Justice Department and the federal court system to remove adulterated or mislabeled products from the market. As the FDA website on laws and regulations regarding cosmetics states, it can “request a federal district court to issue a restraining order against the manufacturer or distributor of the violative cosmetic.”
Some may wonder then, who exactly is responsible for the testing and safety of the cosmetics currently on the market? The answer is the cosmetic manufacturers themselves. The people who profit directly from the sale of these products are legally responsible for ensuring their safety. These companies are not required to submit any of their safety evaluations to the FDA and, furthermore, the FDA does not have the power to recall any cosmetics. That power belongs to the manufacturer.
I recognize there are those reading this who may not see an issue with the current system because, as a website promoted by cosmetic manufacturers states, “There are very few adverse experiences reported to the FDA in a typical year, and of those reported, most are related to rashes or allergies.” And they are correct — very few incidences are reported to the FDA every year and the story of Lash Lure seems firmly in the past. But extreme reactions to highly concentrated toxins are no longer the main issue with cosmetic regulation. The continued exposure to small amounts of lead, phthalates, mercury, arsenic, BPA and dioxins is the real concern. These chemicals are known to cause cancer, lower IQ, impact reproductive systems, alter hormonal effectiveness and decrease fertility. It is because these disorders are realized so long after the exposure that direct connection to products is almost nonexistent. So yes, there is a very limited number of reported issues with cosmetic products, but that does not mean there aren’t long-term problems. Nonetheless, despite the fact that concern over exposure has changed, the law hasn’t. The same 1938 law that was meant to remove products like Lash Lure is still the most current legislation the FDA operates under.
As a consumer, it can be overwhelming to learn that almost everything you use could be making you sick. When I began my research, I started shopping with a handy list of all the chemicals to avoid because of their potentially hazardous effects, until the list became a page and then a small pamphlet. That made me realize that there are harmful toxins in everything. My favorite eyeshadow, my body lotion and even feminine care products were suspect. It was overwhelming and disappointing to realize the items I surrounded myself with could be impacting my health. It also caused me to realize that it is not my, or anyone else’s, responsibility to become an encyclopedia on possible toxins to avoid. It is the job of the government to ensure that the products available to its citizens are not making them sick and prioritize the health of its people over the profit of companies. This is why the United States needs an updated law that reflects the current concerns over long-term exposure to hormone disrupting products, requires unbiased testing that gives publically available data and necessitates that the FDA monitors all chemicals and products that the public regularly encounters. Though my current “lash transforming” mascara may not cause me to go blind, I shouldn’t have to worry about getting cancer in 10 years either.