80-year-old law authorizing FDA to regulate personal care products must be updated

When a drug company develops a new medicine, consumers can be confident that it has undergone a rigorous review process by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure its safety. 

Likewise, the FDA plays a vital role in upholding U.S. food safety standards and has the authority to remove dangerous products from store shelves.  

But there is one gaping hole in FDA oversight: it currently lacks the authority to oversee the personal care products Americans use every day, products like shampoo, deodorant, cosmetics and skin lotion.  

Congress has a chance to fix that by including the Personal Care Products Safety Act in the upcoming continuing resolution to fund the government, which is expected to also include legislation to reauthorize FDA user fee programs, which will expire soon.  

Today, companies selling personal care products to Americans aren’t required to test their products for safety before selling them. Likewise, the FDA lacks the authority to mandate recalls for dangerous personal care products.  

I first introduced the bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act in 2015 with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and over the years we have gathered a wide swath of support from large companies, small businesses, health experts and consumer advocacy groups. FDA itself last year called on “Congress to modernize the outdated regulatory framework” for personal care products.  

The reason we need this bill is clear: Congress hasn’t reformed safety laws governing personal care products since a 1938 law established its power to regulate these products. Despite a dramatic expansion and advancement of the personal care product industry, the FDA is forced to rely on a law designed for products on the market 80 years ago.  

A number of incidents over the years illustrate FDA’s limitations.  

In 2019, the agency found asbestos – a known carcinogen – in children’s makeup sold at a popular chain store. Lacking the ability to remove the products from store shelves after the company refused to do so voluntarily, the FDA could only offer a warning to consumers to avoid the dangerous products. It was only after public outcry that the company finally stopped selling the products. 

Such lax safety standards aren’t acceptable for other products under FDA’s jurisdiction, including food and drugs, and they’re not acceptable for products used daily by every adult and child in the country. 

Shockingly, hazardous ingredients are all too commonly found in personal care products.  

For example, most hair smoothing or straightening products release formaldehyde gas, a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde exposure can cause short- and long-term health problems, including eye irritation and problems with the nervous system and respiratory tract.  

Similarly, certain preservatives found in personal care products such as parabens have been linked to diminished fertility, lowered thyroid levels and reproductive problems.  

Under the Personal Care Products Safety Act, the FDA would be able to issue regulations outlining good manufacturing practices to ensure products are safe and would receive the authority to remove dangerous products from shelves. The bill would also require manufacturers to register with FDA, so that the agency knows where these products are coming from.  

Improving FDA’s oversight of personal care products is also important to addressing maternal and racial health inequities.  

For example, studies have shown that women have higher exposure to harmful chemicals called phthalates, often found in personal care products, than men. These phthalates have been found to transfer from mother to fetus during pregnancy, potentially harming fetal development. Similarly, Black and Latino women have higher exposure to certain phthalates compared to white women. 

While some states have enacted safety laws governing personal care products, many others have taken no action, leaving millions of Americans exposed to dangerous chemicals every day while just washing their hair or putting on deodorant. This law would put in place strong safety standards nationwide.  

It has been more than 80 years since Congress passed a law to strengthen FDA’s ability to protect consumers from dangerous personal care products, and it’s time to update those regulations for the 21st century. Congress needs to pass this bill now.  

Dianne Feinstein is the senior senator from California. 

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