Cosmetics have seized the limelight in feminist discussions of how impossible beauty standards and consequent reliance on beauty products can damage a young girl’s self-esteem, but few dialogues mention the use of toxic substances in cosmetic ingredients, which is enabled by a lack of governmental oversight. Though consumers can protect themselves from harm by making mindful purchases at the store, it is ultimately the responsibility of the American government to regulate the safety of cosmetic products before they arrive on store shelves and in the homes of citizens.
A History of Regulation
Contrary to popular perception, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in fact oversees very little of the cosmetic industry. Not only does the FDA not screen the safety of most cosmetic ingredients, allowing for the use of heavy metals and other potentially hazardous materials, but it also does not require manufacturers to register or to report product-induced injuries. The U.S. only limits 11 substances, while other countries, namely Canada and those in the European Union, strictly prohibit hundreds of harmful chemicals in its cosmetic products. In essence, these nations have adopted a preventive approach to public health concerns, whereas the U.S. has yet to do much on the front of protecting its citizens from potentially harmful cosmetic ingredients.
The first and only major piece of legislation to regulate cosmetics was the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), which was merely an expansion of the previous 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Currently, cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, undergo no review by the FDA before entering the marketplace. In addition, the industry tests product safety through the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which cannot enforce compliance with its recommendations due to the voluntary nature of its program. Thus, the reality of the situation is that there is no entity holding the cosmetic industry accountable for product safety other than itself.
What has resulted from this lack of federal oversight is the use of ingredients, such as parabens, that numerous studies have found to be potentially linked with cancer, reproductive harm, and endocrine disruption. While there already exist a multitude of studies on the short-term effects of these substances on human health, much less is known about how they will affect human health when built up over time in the body. An additional area requiring more research is the potential harm that synergistic interactions between multiple chemicals could cause. Research by the Environmental Working Group has found that “chemicals that are not carcinogenic in and of themselves […] can affect normal cells in ways that make them more prone to becoming cancerous.” Considering the dearth of information on the long-term effects of many cosmetic ingredients, it is difficult to assess the full scale of damage that current cosmetic products may inflict on consumers. However, by enacting stricter regulations now, the American government can prevent future public health issues resulting from prolonged use of cosmetics.
The Responsibility Trade-Off
In spite of lax regulations and labeling requirements, consumers can still educate themselves through venues like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep project. Through its online database of thousands of cosmetics and personal care products, Skin Deep provides consumers with toxicity ratings for each product based on its full ingredient list. Another example of an enterprise seeking to better inform consumers about the contents of cosmetics is Abe’s Market, an online marketplace that screens the products it sells for safety and provides all ingredient information to its customers. Nevertheless, even if these resources are available for consumers to educate themselves, determining which products are safe to use should not be the consumer’s responsibility. Rather, it is the duty of the government to guarantee the safety of a product through the regulation of industry before it arrives in consumers’ hands.
This notion of paternalism—the practice of an authority figure enforcing restrictions on freedoms in the best interests of those they govern—would align perfectly with past actions the U.S. government has taken. Take for example the meatpacking industry during the twentieth century. When Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle horrified the nation with details of the unsanitary manufacturing process and unsafe working conditions, the federal government responded with the Meat Inspection Act. Then there was the slew of environmental protection legislation in the 1970s that came with increased awareness about pollution and other environmental issues. In both these cases, action was taken only after damage had been done. In the cosmetics industry, the extent of harm remains to be seen, but the U.S. can follow the lead of Canada and the European Union in taking on a precautionary approach to regulating cosmetics. In addition, considering the fact that the majority of other American industries are subject to a substantial amount of regulation, the case of the cosmetics industry seems to be an anomaly. Numerous sectors, such as water management and food production, demonstrate that the involvement of the government in regulation has created net positive gains in public health. Thus, to expand federal regulation of cosmetics would add to an observable trend of increased regulation resulting in public health benefits.
Still, owing to the work of groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, there is some push to improve upon current legislation. This past April, Senators Diane Feinstein and Susan Collins introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which seeks to strengthen federal regulation of cosmetics. If passed, the act would mandate that the FDA screen five chemicals a year for safety and require cosmetic companies to register their facilities, ingredients, and products with the FDA, among other new rules. Though this bill is not nearly rigorous enough to bring the U.S. up to speed with Canada and the European Union, it is a step in the right direction. After all, beauty may demand sacrifice, but that sacrifice should never have to be sound health.
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