Did you know that The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to require companies to test their cosmetic products for safety? Or that the FDA also does not review or approve the vast majority of products or ingredients in our makeup before they hit the shelves?

In fact, the FDA has little power to do anything with relation to the cosmetics industry. It has no authority to require recalls of harmful cosmetics, nor are manufacturers required to report cosmetics-related injuries or complaints to the agency (companies are relied upon to do so voluntarily…). Marketing claims on labels are also unregulated and companies are rarely, if ever, required to back them up. This means the claims written on your expensive “hypoallergenic” lotion made from “natural” ingredients may mean nothing at all. The term organic in cosmetics also has no legal meaning.

With the exception of 11 prohibited substances and color additives, companies may use any ingredient or raw material in their products without government review or approval and then make a claim on the front that they most likely will not have to ever support as being true. Ingredients such as formaldehyde, coal tar, lead and mercury are in products we use every day, including those used on children. In contrast, the European Union Health Commission has banned more than 1,300 ingredients from use in cosmetics and beauty products.

The regulations currently governing the cosmetics industry in the U.S. (an industry expected to top $60 billion dollars in revenue in 2016) are from 1930. WHAT?!? Talk about archaic. I’d say the beauty landscape has changed quite a bit since then.

You may think that ingredients in makeup, lotions and sunscreens applied to the skin will rarely get into the body. Not true. Our skin is the largest organ in our body and what we put on it will get absorbed into our bloodstream and our cells. We can also ingest cosmetic ingredients by breathing in powders or sprays and by swallowing chemicals on our lips or hands. A recent study in the United Kingdom found that women who use makeup absorb almost five pounds of chemicals into their bodies each year. Many of these chemicals are hormone disruptors and can wreck havoc on our endocrine system, which oversees thyroid and adrenal function as well as estrogen and progesterone, hormones necessary for a woman’s monthly cycle.

When it comes to finding healthy food I always stress the importance of reading food labels. But with makeup it’s unfortunately a bit more difficult. Federal law currently allows companies to leave some chemical ingredients off their product labels, including those considered to be trade secrets, and components of fragrance, that ubiquitous label you pretty much see on everything.

With all the push for transparency in the food we eat, I’m surprised we haven’t heard more discussion about cosmetics.  I learned all of these astounding facts when I listened to a podcast from NPR’s On Point called The Battle to Regulate Cosmetics. There is a growing campaign out there for safe cosmetics and some big companies support regulation, though not all.

I personally don’t see what the holdup is. I think it is astounding that some companies are putting chemicals in our skin and beauty products that have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption and allergies and the government can’t do anything about it. Full transparency is a must! Companies should be required to register products, ingredients should be tested by the FDA, accurate labeling should be required and mandatory recalls allowed if a harmful substance is found in products on the market. The fact that cosmetic companies have gone so long without this being the case just blows my mind.

I think we’ll get there, but it will take some time (it’s the government we’re talking about folks…). So what can we the consumer do to protect ourselves in the meantime? There are some handy websites and apps out there that cut through all the cosmetic crap and give it to you straight.

  1. The Skin Deep Cosmetics Database from the Environmental Working Group - On this website you can search for over 62,000 products that have been tested and ranked by the EWG. This includes sunscreens, makeup, skin care, hair care, nail care, fragrances, oral care and products for babies and moms. The products with the best rankings get a 0 to 2, so if you want to go clean, focus on scores in this range. They also have great quick tips for safer cosmetics, FAQs, and a guide debunking common myths about cosmetic safety.

  2. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics - This site provides safe cosmetic tips, background on concerning chemicals and backs it all up with science. It also has lists of cosmetic companies that have met their safety standards by product type.

  3. Think Dirty App - It’s free and and is an unbiased product-comparison app for cosmetics and personal care products. You can scan products right off the shelf (or in your own medicine cabinet) and see their ratings and further information on ingredients and their possible long-term effects. They provide recommendations in the category of the product you just scanned and to make it easier, you can even buy products from Amazon directly through the app. I scanned most things in my shower and medicine cabinet that I use every day and was astounded by some of the ratings on products I thought were fairly healthy to use (from Dove and Origins no less).

When it comes to our health, sometimes we’ve got to do the work. Don’t rely on a company’s claims when determining what is safe to put on or in your body. Being more proactive about it now may help you save money in medical bills down the road.

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Photo credit:  Image courtesy of Mainstream on flickr