Paying for poison: the FDA needs more authority to ban toxic cosmetics and supplements

From illegal stimulants to formaldehyde, toxins are freely sold in supermarkets everywhere. Where is the FDA?

Clinical trials for new pharmaceuticals are extensive. Research and discovery leads to pre-clinical tests, which then goes through three trial phases, requiring thousands of participants. Once submitted the FDA review process is the next hurdle. Of the thousands of drugs that begin the research phase, only 12 percent even reach Phase 1. The entire process takes an average of ten years at a cost of $2.6 billion per drug. 

By contrast, walk into any Whole Foods or nutritional shop and you are exposed to thousands of bottles of pills with virtually no federal oversight. Some of these “supplements” rival pharmaceuticals in strength, with much riskier side effects given they’ve never been scientifically validated. It’s not only the vitamin aisle: cosmetics and weight loss pills containing toxic chemicals bring in billions of dollars every year.

We live in an era where regulatory body budgets are being slashed while important positions are cut. As our longstanding fear of Big Brother is manifesting in the algorithms behind social media and online transactions, we’re paying little attention to products that could use a watchful eye. The real world consequences of supplements and other products, which need intervention and scientific rigor, are potentially creating more health problems than they’re solving, and little is being done about it. 

Consider this new paper in Clinical Toxicology. Harvard internist Pieter Cohen is, according to Stat, a “noted supplement detective.” Cohen asked colleagues to investigate six weight loss and workout supplements containing unrecognizable ingredients. Their analysis shows that one stimulant inside these products, DMAA, can cause cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks. While banned by the FDA in 2012, two of the six they tested contain it, albeit under pseudonyms.

Three of the products contain octodrine, which is chemically similar to DMAA. Octodrine was initially developed for bronchitis and laryngitis, first approved by the FDA in 1946 for use through inhalation. Oral usage is riskier; in studies on animals it increases blood pressure and cardiac output, while toxicity studies in cats discovered that it leads to vomiting and convulsions. 

Dosage matters. One product includes twice the amount used in asthma treatment. Game Day is marketed as “Perfection. One dose Hits Harder, Works Faster, Performs Longer, and Mixes Better than we could’ve hoped for.” Another pill contains a mixture of stimulants, which Cohen says presents its own problem given that researchers are ignorant of the effects of such a combination. Among other things, this product, Simply Skinny Pollen, is marketed for use “Dissolving and Flushing Out Fat.” 

I’m not sure how one dissolves and flushes fat, nor why these companies feel the need to capitalize so many words, but scientific integrity is not part of the pitch. Weight loss and workout supplements aren’t the only industries to escape FDA scrutiny. A year ago the FTC had to step in to regulate homeopathy claims, which is another industry built on suspect ingredients with bold claims showing no rigorous trial validity. 

Thing is, since these manufacturers don’t need to adhere to many guidelines, or even comply to the ones that exist, there’s no reason to test their products. Many show no better results than the placebo effect, yet rake in billions of dollars every year—as does the cosmetics industry, whose manufacturers continue to produce hair dyes containing lead acetate. 

As the editors of Scientific American write, it is usually only a public outcry that raises suspicions inside of the agency. The problem begins with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, passed in 1938, of which the editors write, 

The law requires no specific tests before a company brings a new product with a new chemical to market, and it does not require companies to release whatever safety data they may collect.

Thus rows and rows of products containing formaldehyde—nearly one-fifth of all cosmetic products!—as well as phthalates, parabens, and triclosan. My wife recently pointed out that she has a tough time finding nail polish and remover without toxic chemicals, which makes no sense given how porous our fingernails and toenails are. We’re willingly mainlining neurotoxins into our bloodstream. The editors continue: 

At exposures typical of cosmetic users, several of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, impaired reproductive ability and compromised neurodevelopment in children.

Consumers should not be required to lug a dictionary—ok, open a dictionary app on their phones—every time they want to understand ingredients. We know ourselves: we’ll fall for the bright shiny “all natural” label without understanding that term is effectively meaningless. Regulations on most terminology is suspect. So medical hucksters pimp green tea diet pills during prime time and we order away, unconcerned with those multisyllabic medical-sounding terms dominating the label. 

A market isn’t free if its products are sickening and even killing consumers—that’s a heavy price to pay for freedom. We might fear Big Brother, but the fear of illness from toxic chemicals should override those concerns. Government isn’t useless, as many politicians like to claim. We need them to legislate the products we put inside and outside of our bodies. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.