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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Personal Care Products and the Precautionary Principle

Jun 28, 2014 04:29AM

Many consumers assume the personal care products they buy are safe. They trust that labels like organic and all-natural are true. Government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitor the food that is grown and sold in this country, so it seems safe to assume that this also applies to personal care products, right? However the FDA’s current policy states, “Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.” 

The current law guiding the manufacture of cosmetics dates back to The Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938. This legislation grants oversight of cosmetics safety to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), which is funded by a lobbying entity representing the 600 largest U.S., cosmetics companies. While this may or may not have been a good idea in 1938, a lot has changed in the past 75 years. In that time, over 80,000 chemicals and nano-particles have been introduced into the market, and there is little information available on the safety of these ingredients.

While university and other scientific studies have found that many of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins or endocrine disruptors, the United States is lagging behind its European counterparts in terms of oversight of these types of chemicals. In 2007, the European Union (EU) put into effect the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances (REACH), which regulates chemicals and their safe use. It requires registration of about 30,000 chemical substances, with procedures to collect and assess the properties of these substances on varying levels of safety. To date, over 1,300 substances have been banned. In contrast, the FDA has only banned nine chemicals from personal care products.


An updated cosmetics safety act has been in the works for a few years, however, it could be a while before changes are made in legislation. In the mean time, as the issue gains more attention and information becomes more accessible to the public, it is important for health educators and practitioners to break down several other myths about the cosmetic industry. For example, words like natural, dermatologist tested, and safe, don’t necessarily mean what most people think. These claims are largely unregulated and currently have no standard definition. Furthermore, people assume that the FDA has the power to remove products from the market that have caused harm to consumers. However, the FDA has no such authority and instead relies on the manufacturers themselves to voluntarily remove such products from shelves.

Clearly, it is important that consumers understand what they are buying and have a method to identify potentially harmful ingredients. The Environmental Working Group, a national leader in research and advocacy on toxins and corporate responsibility, has developed the Skin Deep Database—a searchable database ( that ranks products and ingredients on their overall safety and long-term health effects. Above all, the most important step consumers can take is to educate themselves about what they are using and become familiar with safer alternatives. Thankfully, there is an increasing selection of products available, due to the demand being created by educated consumers.


Maggie Mascarenhas is a marketing intern for Herban Lifestyle, and Dr. Mary Kearns is the president and founder of Herban Lifestyle. For more information, visit


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