Does the FDA Really Regulate the Cosmetics Industry?

Does the FDA truly regulate the cosmetics industry? // Photo credit: yacobchuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus

We may think of the Food and Drug Administration as an all-powerful regulatory body, but the organization doesn’t have much say over cosmetic formulations. “Right now, companies can use virtually any raw material in a cosmetic product without FDA oversight or pre-market review, which has led to the presence of carcinogens in baby shampoo and bubble bath, hormonally active ingredients in fragrances, lead in lipstick, formaldehyde in hair-straightening products, and even PFOA—the Teflon chemical—in anti-aging products,” says Janet Nudelman, director of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC). As the founder of, Kristen Arnett has witnessed this issue first-hand.  “In an effort to save money or give the customer a certain texture or wearability, companies have been coming up with all kinds of chemical cocktails for our skin, hair, and nails,” she says. “For decades, no one seemed to question the impact of the ingredients being dumped into products.”

In fact, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the industry is one of America’s least regulated. Fragrances, for example, are often considered trade secrets, and as such, companies aren’t required by law to individually list those components on labels, even though artificial scents can be serious allergens and often contain hormone disrupting chemicals like phthalates. In 2010, when CSC partnered with the Environmental Working Group to research these undeclared ingredients on name brand fragrance labels, they found an average of 14 secret chemicals in 17 products—none of which were listed on the label. “While hundreds of cosmetic companies marketing themselves as ‘safe’ or ‘natural’ have chosen to fully disclose fragrance ingredients, the majority of the conventional cosmetic companies continue to hide dozens—sometimes hundreds—of chemicals under the word ‘fragrance’ in the cosmetics and personal care products we use every day,” says Nudelman. “The bottom line is the FDA needs more statutory authority and resources to more effectively regulate the cosmetics industry.”

Given that lack of resources, SpaRitual’s Shel Pink believes the organization gets a bad rap: “It’s really underfunded,” she says. Rather than rely on a flawed system, though, SpaRitual and other brands are putting their clients’ wellbeing first. “We can make those healthier choices on our own in terms of how we formulate,” she says. “As an industry, what we’re doing is the right thing: making the right decisions, being transparent about it, and having that relationship with our customers to educate them on our ingredients and what we’re doing.”

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