Toxic Personal Care Products and Women’s Health: A Public Health Crisis

In fact, manufacturers aren’t required to list all of their ingredients, test their products, use good manufacturing practices to prevent contamination, or even recall products that they know are dangerous. 

Cosmetics and other personal care products are regulated by FDA under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) of 1938. The FFDCA forbids the introduction of adulterated or misbranded cosmetics into interstate commerce and provides for seizure, criminal penalties and other enforcement authorities for violations of the Act. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) also requires cosmetics to carry an ingredient declaration to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions. Unlike other products regulated by FDA, however, such as drugs, medical devices and biologics, most cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval. Instead, cosmetic manufacturers are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before they go to market.

Under the law, cosmetic facilities can register with FDA on a voluntary basis, but FDA cannot compel them to do so. While FDA has the authority under FFDCA to enter and inspect cosmetic manufacturing facilities, the industry does not pay user fees for this. This means that companies can use almost any chemical ingredient in products without first having to prove it is safe for consumers—and many personal care products marketed and sold in the U.S contain toxic chemicals. As then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stated in March, “To be clear, there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety.”

As a result of these lax regulations, the cosmetic industry has been mostly self-regulated for more than a century! Carcinogens, reproductive and developmental toxins are ending up in cosmetic and personal care products with no government oversight. Toxic ingredients are found in cosmetics and other personal care products that include baby powder, vaginal douches, lotion, body sprays, deodorants and perfumes, makeup, and hair dyes and straighteners. These toxins have been linked to ovarian cancer,  breast cancer,  early onset of pubertyfibroids and endometriosismiscarriagepoor maternal and infant health outcomesdiabetes and obesity, and other health problems.

While unsafe, unregulated products endanger everyone, they pose unique risks to women. Research has revealed that American women spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars on personal care over the course of their lifetimes, far more than men. For many Black women and other women of color, the risks are even higher and the products are even more toxic. Black women spend four times more than White women on hair care products, in part because they face steep social and professional costs for having to conform to beauty standards based on European characteristics. 

One study conducted in 2016 found that white respondents rated Black women’s natural hair as “less attractive” and “less professional” than when it was straightened. Reports of Black women being fired from their workplace for having natural hair are not uncommon. At the same time, the process of altering naturally curly hair texture to straight hair texture often involves harmful ingredients, such as lye (sodium hydroxide), which “relax” or “perm” the hair.

In late 2016, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) set out to investigate to what extent major companies that make beauty, personal care and cleaning products were hiding unlabeled toxic chemicals in their products. BCPP hired two independent third-party testing laboratories to do the test. Out of the over 20 personal care products tested, they identified a product called Just For Me, a kids’ shampoo, a product marketed to Black girls and women, made by Strength of Nature as the most hazardous product in the experiment. What is horrifying about the results is that out of the 32 personal care and cleaning products BCPP analyzed, Just for Me kids’ shampoo was even more toxic than the cleaning products! 

We know that in many cases, companies actively market dangerous products to Black and Latina women. Earlier this year, for example, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform heard moving testimony from the family of a Black woman who died from ovarian cancer linked to talcum baby powder. Internal documents from Johnson & Johnson reveal that the company knew for decades that its baby powder posed potential health risks but doubled down on aggressively targeting women of color, distributing free samples in Black churches and advertising on Spanish-language radio.

But the problems don’t only lie with harmful ingredients. The industry also has few to no legal requirements protecting against toxic contamination. In 2017, an independent investigation found that Just Shine Shimmer Powder (a cosmetic product marketed by retail chain Justice to children and teens), contained high levels of asbestos, a known human carcinogen, as well as toxic heavy metals including lead.

In December 2017, similar problems with contamination were alleged about beauty products sold at Claire’s, a makeup and accessories store for girls. Independent testing in 2019 once again found asbestos contamination in certain products sold by Claire’s, Justice, and cosmetics maker Beauty Plus Global. Claire’s initially refused to recall the tainted products; under current law, the FDA does not have the authority to mandate a recall.

These toxic ingredients and contaminated supply chains affect products used by women and girls on the most sensitive parts of their bodies, on a daily basis, for decades; they have all been potentially linked to serious reproductive health problems and even death. It’s clear that unregulated personal care products represent a slow-motion public health crisis—one that very few people have ever heard of, in large part because this problem is deeply rooted in issues of gender and race. Those who are the most deeply affected have often had the least power to demand change.

The public health scandals including cancer-causing and endocrine disrupting chemicals in personal care and hair products and asbestos and lead in makeup products illustrate the depth of the problem and need for reform. Earlier this summer, the NWHN led 42 national, state, and local organizations in sending a letter to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. In the letter, we called on Congress to pass legislation updating the outdated Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and to include the strongest possible safeguards to protect women’s health.

While several of the letter’s signatories have long been active in the fight for safe cosmetics, many others had not previously engaged on this issue. The latter group represents a new and growing groundswell of grassroots activism in response to overwhelming evidence that the current regulatory system is failing women. 

M. Isabelle Chaudry, J.D., is the Senior Policy Manager for the NWHN and an advocate for marginalized communities of women. Isabelle actively lobbies and provides expert testimony before Congress and the FDA for women’s health and cosmetic policies. She is an LL.M candidate in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and a Board Member for Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Read more from M. Isabelle Chaudry.

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