FDA finds asbestos in Claire’s product. Why are cosmetics barely regulated?

The U.S. law regulating the cosmetics industry was passed in 1938, and it hasn't been significantly updated since.

Photo credit: Karina Tess on Unsplash
  • Claire's voluntarily pulled the products from shelves.
  • Small amounts of asbestos have been found in several beauty products in recent years.
  • The Food and Drug Administration has said it wants greater oversight of the cosmetics industry.

A batch of makeup sets — sold by Claire's Stores, Inc. and marketed to young girls — contained small amounts of asbestos, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Claire's told Business Insider it voluntarily recalled the product, JoJo Cosmetic Kit, noting that "such small trace amounts are considered acceptable under European and Canadian cosmetic safety regulations." Small amount or not, the FDA's message was clear on Twitter: "Don't Use This Claire's Beauty Product!"

The story is one of several in recent years that raise the question: Should the cosmetics industry finally face tougher regulation? For context, cosmetics makers don't need approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell products in the U.S. The FDA can, after the fact, ban products that contain dangerous ingredients — the agency does inspect cosmetics manufacturing facilities. However, this approach is basically: "sell first, ask questions later."

Here's how the FDA puts it:

"Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products. Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA."

Regarding the FDA protections that do exist, it's unclear how strong they are, considering: the massive size of the cosmetics industry, which analysts predict will be worth more than $800 billion globally by 2023; the amount and diversity of chemicals found in personal care products; and the ways in which harmful chemicals can make their way into products during the manufacturing process.

Also, the U.S. law that regulates the cosmetics industry — the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act — was passed in 1938 and hasn't been significantly updated since. Europe currently bans more than 1,300 chemicals from cosmetics products, while the U.S. prohibits just 11.

​Chemicals in cosmetics

Asbestos — which causes mesothelioma — isn't intentionally added to cosmetics products, but can make its way into them because of the often shoddy ways talc is produced, according to asbestos.com.

"Asbestos ends up in makeup because of poor regulations involving cosmetic-grade talc, which is also known as talcum powder. Talc and asbestos are minerals that form together. That means talc mined for commercial uses can be contaminated with asbestos — a known cause of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Talc is added to makeup because it creates a soft, silky texture, and it dilutes pigmented products and acts as filler. It is a common ingredient in powder compacts, finishing powders, eye shadows, blushes, foundations and creams."

But cosmetics companies do add some potentially dangerous chemicals to today's products. As Business Insider notes in a recent article, these include phthalates, parabens, coal tar dyes, formaldehyde, triclosan, polyethylene glycol, butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene. Alec Batis, a former research chemist and expert on the risks and benefits of chemicals used in beauty products, told Business Insider that the cosmetics industry needs more oversight, because now "it's like a cat and mouse game."

"Corporate is putting the pressure on marketers to increase sales, and marketers are putting the pressure on chemists to just come up with the next thing," he said.

In March, the FDA said it wanted greater oversight over the growing cosmetics industry.

"Our program for cosmetics also has remained small despite the industry's significant expansion and global supply chain. To modernize our overall approach, we need to expand the scope of what we're able to do commensurate with the scope of the cosmetics industry, and we're going to seek a broader dialogue on how we can make the overall system more robust. To improve consumer safety and secure our mission for years to come, a more modern approach could include tools that are tailored for cosmetics, including appropriate frameworks for registration and listing of products and their ingredients, good manufacturing practice regulations, company reporting of adverse events, access to records (including consumer complaints) during routine or for-cause inspections, mandatory recalls, disclosure of known cosmetic allergens on a product's label, and ingredient review."

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