We usually trust that the shampoo, deodorant, lotions and cosmetics we use are safe. You might be surprised to hear of a gap that has allowed potentially toxic and untested products stay on the shelf. Joce Sterman investigates.
America in the 1930s. Radio was the main form of entertainment. An average house cost $4,100. A gallon of gas was about 10 cents.
In that decade, President Franklin Roosevelt broke new ground by signing the federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act. At the time, it would be used to combat questionable remedies like crazy water crystals, sleepy salts, and veneered chicken.
But when it passed in 1938, the law was missing one key piece. It did not give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to police the consumer products that line the shelves of your bathroom and vanity. To this day, the agency says it still can't.
Melanie Benesh: We use multiple products, multiple times a day, so you’d think they would be among the most regulated, but that’s just not the case.
Melanie Benesh of the Environmental Working Group says there's no category of consumer products that are less regulated than the soaps, lotions and makeup we use every day.
Joce: The FDA doesn’t have registries of these companies and their products?
Melanie Benesh: No.
Joce: They don’t have the authority to do recalls?
Melanie Benesh: No.
Joce: They don’t have a way to do a systematic look at their ingredients and what their long-term effects are?
Melanie Benesh: No.
Wynne Sisk: They’re supposed to be looking out for the health and safety of the American public. It’s not happening.
Hair stylist Wynne Sisk got out of the business after realizing a straightening treatment she was using on customers was making her sick.
Wynne Sisk: Our eyes were burning, our throats were burning.
Joce: No warnings on the box that it contains a harmful chemical?
Wynne Sisk: No.
Turns out, it contained fomaldehyde. The chemical, a noted irritant and possible carcinogen, is also found in many hair straighteners. Despite investigations and hundreds of complaints, it still hasn't been banned by the FDA.
Wynne Sisk: How in the world could you turn a blind eye to something that is so important?
And there are other examples that show the Agency's lack of power when it comes to personal care products.
After our Providence Station found asbestos in Claire's makeup marketed to kids in 2017 - it took the FDA more than a year to confirm the hazard and issue a warning. Even then, it couldn't force a recall.
And while Johnson and Johnson has long said its baby powder is asbestos free and safe to use, lawsuits have alleged a potential link between the product and ovarian cancer. In one case just last year, a cancer patient was awarded $300 million. Johnson and Johnson are still facing 16,00 additional cases.
Still the FDA has not issued or required a warning.
The Agency says it monitors the market for products that may pose a risk, and is asking manufacturers to start providing information about how they ensure their products are safe. It says it can work with the Department of Justice to get products off shelves, but it doesn't happen often.
Washington has long wanted a change.
Bipartisan bills have repeatedly been introduced in both the House and Senate, with more recent versions designed to give the FDA the authority to do mandatory recalls, force companies to turn over information about health problems reported about their products, and get the agency to review chemicals of concern, five at a time, every year.
Sen. Susan Collins: We don’t know what these ingredients are.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine was among the sponsors of a bill proposed last year that lawmakers hoped would more heavily regulate personal care products.
Sen. Susan Collins: I’m always very hesitant to write new government regulations but this is an area that really cries out for regulation because consumers cannot possibly make informed judgments on the myriad of chemicals that are in personal care products.
Jay Ansell: The existing framework we use is in fact working. It is delivering safe products.
Jay Ansell is the Vice President of Science for the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association. He says the industry is not unregulated and says the vast majority of products are safe. Still, he says major industry players support modernizing the law.
Jay Ansell: Cosmetics are not been regulated the same as food and drugs but that hardly means they’re unregulated. I think the industry can be proud of what it’s done but people want to see some of these voluntary initiatives become mandatory. The FDA in the 21st century should have more tools.
Despite bipartisan support in many cases, the bills haven't passed. The personal care industry opposes a lot of these bills and lobbies against them, because it would cost them money. In several of the bills introduced, the makers of products would pay fees to finance the FDA's oversight.