Hazardous Substances in the Bathroom

The not-so-pretty risks of cosmetics and medications.

| May/June 1984

The following section on cosmetics was adapted from an article by Ruth Decker that appeared in the Summer 1983 issue of Medical Self-Care.

Hazardous Substances in Cosmetics

The cosmetics industry, whose sales totaled $10.4 billion in 1980, produces more than 25,000 products containing 8,000 ingredients, and yet it's virtually unregulated. According to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the FDA is responsible for insuring that cosmetics are safe. Unfortunately, the agency has little real authority over the cosmetic manufacturers. The FDA can't require them to register their products or even to inform the agency of their ingredients. If the FDA receives reports that a cosmetic is unsafe, it can't order the product removed from the market pending a review. To have any cosmetic taken off the market, the FDA must obtain a court order through a long and difficult procedure.

The burden of proof is on the regulator. Cosmetics are definitely innocent until proven guilty. But with a non-administrative staff of only 28 people (20 testers at FDA headquarters in Washington and eight field investigators) and a budget that in 1982 was only $2.3 million for the Cosmetic Technology Division, the agency is unable to pursue many cases. And even if the FDA had sufficient funds, it couldn't ban hair dyes that are known to contain carcinogens. Congress specifically exempted coal-tar dyes from the section of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that empowers the FDA to prohibit the use of "adulterated" substances.

Not surprisingly, self-regulation doesn't seem to be working all that well, either. In 1978 the Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary, published by the Cosmetic Toiletry Fragrance Association, neglected to mention that 100 chemicals listed as cosmetic ingredients were also classed as suspected carcinogens by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The Dictionary also listed 24 other ingredients that NIOSH suspected of causing birth defects and 20 suspected of causing adverse nervous system effects—such as headaches, drowsiness, and convulsions—without making any mention of their possible hazards.

To its credit, the FDA has established rules for cosmetic labeling, with which the majority of manufacturers have complied. But the agency has, at times, been less than enthusiastic about initiating the regulatory actions that lie within its powers. In 1978 Gregory Ahart of the General Accounting Office, appearing before a Congressional subcommittee, told its members, "The Consumer Product Safety Commission has established regulations requiring that specific warning statements be placed on the labels of household products containing certain toxic ingredients, but the FDA has not established similar regulations governing the use of the same ingredients in cosmetics."

If you'd like to find out more about the compounds and hazardous substances found in cosmetics, see A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1976).

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