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A Foundation of Trust: Ensuring the Safety of Cosmetics & Other Personal Care Products

In 2014, a 9-year-old girl in Colorado used a new shampoo her mother purchased because it was advertised as being extra gentle and made without harsh chemicals.  She stopped using it after just three washes when her hair began falling out in clumps.  Three weeks later, she was bald.  Although her hair fortunately began growing back, she was still teased at school for having bald spots for years afterwards.


Americans use a variety of cosmetics and other personal care products daily, including lotions, shampoos, and make-up.  Most Americans, however, do not know that the federal government currently lacks the authority to ensure the safety of these products.  In fact, the consumer safety law pertaining to these products has not been updated in more than 80 years.


The bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act I introduced with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) would bring the law governing the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of these products into the 21st century.  By strengthening FDA oversight of the ingredients in personal care products for the first time in more than eight decades, this legislation would help protect the health of consumers and provide regulatory certainty for manufacturers.  It has been endorsed by nearly 20 organizations, including Burt’s Bees, which was founded here in Maine.


The FDA and product safety experts have noted concerns about the use and concentration of certain ingredients in personal care products that have not been independently reviewed for health effects.  For example, according to the FDA, some hair smoothing and straightening products release formaldehyde gas, a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde exposure can cause short- and long-term health problems. 


At present, when the FDA finds an unsafe ingredient in a personal care product, it usually cannot force a company to stop selling it.  The Personal Care Products Safety Act would empower the FDA to review product ingredients and provide companies with clear guidance, including whether ingredients should continue to be used and if consumer warnings are necessary.  It would also require the FDA to issue recalls on products likely to cause significant harm if companies refuse to do so voluntarily – an authority the FDA now lacks.


This legislation would require personal care products manufacturers to register with FDA, disclose the ingredients they use, and attest that they have safety records for their products.  Companies would have to report serious adverse events, such as infections that require medical treatment, within 15 days and an annual summary of all reported adverse health events, including less serious reactions, such as rashes.


In addition, it would require the FDA to issue regulations outlining good manufacturing practices for personal care products and to provide technical assistance and additional flexibility for smaller businesses to comply with the law.  The FDA would collect user fees from manufacturers to fund oversight activities, similar to what is done for medications and medical devices, and would have the authority to seize counterfeit cosmetic products and seek civil penalties for violations. States’ existing product safety laws would remain in effect.


This legislation would take a particularly significant step toward protecting the health of consumers by directing the FDA to issue a ban on products that intentionally contain PFAS (perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances).  These harmful man-made “forever chemicals” can bioaccumulate in bodies over time and have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, liver damage, decreased fertility, and hormone disruption. 


Unfortunately, Maine has experienced considerable PFAS contamination, which has not only threatened the water supply for some families, but also adversely affected the livelihoods of farmers.  In addition to these agricultural and water supply contaminations, we now also know that PFAS can be present in a variety of products, including cosmetics. 


Americans should be able to trust that the products they are applying to their hair or skin are safe.  By empowering the FDA to review product ingredients and provide companies with clear guidance, the Personal Care Products Safety Act would help protect consumers’ health.