Regulations and Consumer Safety: The Fight for Safer Products

Today we have a guest post written by Lindsey Pasikea, who works for Consumer Safety, the peak non-profit organisation in the US that is advocating to ensure the the products available in the US market are safe for consumers to use. I am sure you will find her article interesting and informative. 

Regulations and Consumer Safety: The Fight for Safer Products

We all try to be careful about what goes into our bodies. We eat “healthy,” exercise, go to the doctor. Some of us take it a step further, following informative blogs, ditching processed foods and finding tips to DIY our way to a healthy lifestyle. For those of us who lack the time, money, or just plain dedication that natural living takes, the burden of safety falls on shoulders high above ours.

The Food and Drug Administration provides our government’s public face for consumer safety. In fact, they are so trusted to ensure our wellbeing that officials in the highest office in America think we’re experiencing “inspection overkill,” and that maybe it’s time to take a step back. The sad reality is, far less impressive, and the measures we need going forward may warrant a change, but certainly not a downsizing.

I’m not trying to scare you, but rather raise an important point about the way we view product safety. And I’ll do it using a product most of you have seen, perhaps bought, and in many cases used: baby powder.

There are 2 popular reasons why a woman might use baby powder. First is on an infant. Diaper rash is awfully uncomfortable, and baby powder has made a world of difference to many mothers. Second is on herself. Baby powder absorbs moisture. It keeps any area of your body dry, and is especially useful in dispelling sweat and odors from the vaginal area.

One of the most popular baby powders in American homes is Johnson’s Baby Powder, by Johnson & Johnson. And yes, they do also have a “grown-ups” version, called Shower-2-Shower powder. Both products have been used widely for generations, and both are made primarily with talcum powder. When used in the vaginal area, talcum powder has been linked with up to a 30% increase in risk of developing ovarian cancer. Now, to be fair, the nature of the link has not been proven, and there is still much debate in scientific circles as to the exact risk. But here are a few key points to note:

  1. The European Union has widely banned talcum powder from inclusion in beauty products, including baby powder but also many makeup powders like bronzer.
  2. Talcum powder occurs naturally with asbestos, which has been proven to cause mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer, among other health risks. Modern talc producers tout the purity of their product, but just a couple months ago, a premiere makeup line for tweens was found to be using tainted talc in their products.
  3. Despite claims of the absolute safety of their products, Johnson & Johnson does produce a talc-free line. Which means it’s both possible, and profitable enough to warrant a spot in our grocery shops.
  4. The FDA does not regulate talcum powder in cosmetics. In fact, their website states “FDA does not have the legal authority to approve cosmetic products and ingredients (other than color additives) before they go on the market. We also do not have a list of tests required for any particular cosmetic product or ingredient.”

What the FDA does say is that they “can take action against the manufacturer of a cosmetic on the market if we have reliable information to show that a cosmetic does not meet the legal requirement for safety.” Regarding talc specifically, the FDA follows this model exactly, and with little further explanation. The only thing barred from the market is asbestos-tainted talc (which sometimes makes it to the market anyways, because the FDA can’t legally require cosmetic safety tests). Otherwise, the product page for talc only states that it must be “safe for consumer use.” What does that mean? Honestly, I don’t know, but a statement like that sure leaves itself open to interpretation.

So if you went through the standard channels to look at product safety, reading through Johnson & Johnson’s website and checking on the FDA’s standards, you might feel entirely safe, despite significant evidence to the contrary. And I’ll throw another problem onto the pile: even if the FDA did make these requirements a reality, and even if they did want to screen any product imported into the USA, they literally could not do it. Between staff shortages and an administration that wants to cut, not grow, regulations, it would be physically impossible for the FDA to impose rulings on cosmetics, or even enforce them at the door.

You might think this is a singular problem, or that talc is a one-off, especially when it comes to cosmetics. I wish so badly that that were true. But here are a few other things you can find in popular beauty brands:

Dangers: Developmental and reproductive issues. Kidney, blood & respiratory toxicity
Found inLipstick
Red flag ingredients: Lead is not on ingredient labels, but 61% of lipsticks contain lead from pigments.

Dangers: Can lead to early puberty. Certain parabens have been associated with breast cancer.
Found in: moisturizer, shaving creams, mascara
Red flag ingredientsbutylparaben and isopropylparaben

Dangers: Formaldehyde becomes dangerous when heat, such as from a straightening iron or blow dryer, releases the chemical into the air. Health risks include a sore throat, eye irritation, cough, nausea and nosebleeds. Labeled as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicity Program.
Found in: makeup remover, eyelash glue, hair products, eye cream, colored cosmetics
Red flag ingredients: methylene glycol, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, urea, bromopol, and glyoxal

Alright, so at the top of this I told you I wasn’t trying to scare you. I won’t lie, the current issue is nerve-wracking to me, but, and this is important: it CAN and IS being changed by consumers like you. In the case of talcum powder, thousands of women have stood up and brought their cases against Johnson & Johnson. Just last week a woman with terminal cancer won $417 million from the company, and she made it clear she didn’t do it for the money. She did it to help raise awareness, give hope to other women, and hopefully, to get Johnson & Johnson to add a warning label to their products. The jury, like several others, saw her story and stood behind her. The same thing happens every day in lawsuits regarding asbestos, lead, formaldehyde, and a range of other unsafe ingredients.

And though the courts may be our most public forum, some victories are closer to home. When consumers make a conscious choice to change, industry often follows. Why else would most popular milk brands have labels saying they don’t use growth hormones? Why do I see dozens of “paraben-free” labels in the cosmetics aisle? Why are there more organic options than EVER nationwide? It’s because we demanded it, and if you’ve ever taken a marketing class, you’ll know that demand and supply are forever intertwined.

On another level, while we score victories for ourselves, it is important to stand up for others. To demand change in policy the way we do with products. If you take a careful eye to the ingredients in your shopping cart, it’s time to take the same look at the policy mixing bowl. If your safety and the product of our government are at odds, it’s time to say something. You have more power than you know, and together we can make the products we use every day, safer for everyone.

Find out more about Consumer Safety by visiting their website.