By: Hira Javed
The global beauty industry, encompassing cosmetics, personal care products, and fragrances is an economic beast, increasing from $483 billion in 2020 to $511 billion in 2021. The industry is expected to see continual growth, thanks in large part to ecommerce and the internet. Beauty products from the other side of the globe can be delivered to your doorstep with just the click of a button. The United States is a leader in the cosmetics industry and generated about $98.05 billion in 2020. Despite its formidable status in the cosmetics industry, U.S. laws governing cosmetics and personal care products safety are inadequate. The Food, Drug and Cosmetics (FD&C) Act gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate cosmetics. However, the FDA has limited authority to regulate these products, compared to their more stringent authority in regulating food and drugs.  This is perplexing because cosmetics and personal care products have a strong impact on health, even though most people would likely feel safer using a brand-new cosmetic than a brand-new vaccine. What’s even more troubling is that there are racial disparities in the cosmetics industry itself, due to the glamorization of the European standard of beauty, which adds to the already deep racial divides in public health and in healthcare. The beauty industry is self-regulated and the FDA cannot take action until a company violates the law, and even then, the onus is on the FDA to show the product is unsafe. However, just because a product may not show immediate adverse effects does not mean it will not do so long-term. Congress must increase the FDA’s authority to regulate cosmetics and personal care products to bridge both the race and gender gaps in not only the industry, but in public health as a whole.
The FD&C Act was enacted in the 1930s and its cosmetics section has not been substantially changed since. Senators Feinstein and Collins introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act which aimed to increase the FDA’s authority in regulating cosmetics and personal care products. The goals of the Act included having cosmetics companies register with the FDA, allowing the FDA to recall products made with certain chemicals, and require the FDA to evaluate designated chemicals annually to determine safety to a “reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” among other mandates, to ensure safety. This law would require cosmetics companies to submit annual reports to the FDA. Larger cosmetics companies tended to favor the Act while smaller companies did not. This was likely due to the larger companies having more financial and scientific resources to meet the proposed standards. For example, larger companies have more funds available to spend on hiring experts to perform evaluations and prepare safety assessment reports to submit to the FDA, compared to smaller companies. Unfortunately, though the Personal Care Products Safety Act was introduced three times, it has yet to pass. Other senators have introduced similar bills, but they do not provide nearly enough safety or legal relief for consumers.
Racism is a public health crisis, and it is further exacerbated by racist practices in the beauty industry. Products advertised towards women of color tend to be manufactured with more hazardous chemicals than those products advertised towards white women. Long-term effects of certain chemicals used in beauty products can have devastating effects on health. This is especially true for women of color, who use products with higher amounts of these toxins. For example, women who use skin lightening creams become exposed to mercury, which could lead to mercury poisoning, neurotoxicity, or kidney damage. Some hair products like relaxers and straighteners contain parabens and estrogenic chemicals from placenta. Black women are especially impacted by these types of hair products because they tend to use more of them and at an earlier age. These chemicals disrupt estrogen levels in the body leading to breast cancer, premature development, endocrine problems, and uterine fibroids. The unattainable mainstream Hollywood and European beauty standards are, in large part, to blame for this. Advertising strategies are designed to make women feel unhappy or dissatisfied with their appearance, hence the appeal to “correct” it with cosmetics. This involves editing models’ photos to such an extent that the beauty standard these companies are trying to market does not exist in reality. This is even more troubling for women of color. This impossible, fantasy beauty standard does not appreciate the beauty in darker skin tones and textured hair. Racist practices governing what are considered “professional” hairstyles are also at fault. The danger lies within not only the psychological impacts but also the physical harm done over time by using toxic beauty products.
Giving the FDA more authority to regulate cosmetics and personal care products would help resolve racial disparities in the cosmetics industry and improve public health. The Personal Care Products Safety Act is a good starting point because it requires the FDA to be active in preventing use of toxins in cosmetics and personal care products. The Act would require the cosmetics companies to be proactive in ensuring that they are protecting their customers. Further, the Office of Women’s Health (OWH) at the FDA is dedicated to promoting women’s health, in accordance with its mission. Perhaps creating another center within the control of OWH would allow for more careful pre-market product safety inspections.
It is astounding that the cosmetics section of the FD&C Act has not been changed since its enactment in the 1930’s and it is imperative that Congress act quickly to protect women.
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 Id. at 419-20.
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