Mellman: Time to regulate cosmetics

Not long ago, a mother washing her 9-year-old daughter’s hair lifted her hand to find the girl’s entire head of hair falling out by the handful.

The mother, whose daughter went from having long, flowing hair to being virtually bald in a matter of days, feared her child was suffering from a serious medical condition. Repeated visits to several doctors were made, and a battery of invasive tests conducted.

{mosads}While health professionals cannot determine for sure, it is suspected that the culprit was a popular hair care product called Wen Cleansing Conditioner by Chaz Dean, a staple of late-night infomercials, which the mother had used three times on her daughter’s hair. 

Court filings from a class-action lawsuit demonstrate this young lady was not alone. Indeed, more than 17,000 U.S. consumers complained of hair loss, baldness and scalp irritation to the firm that markets the product.

This wouldn’t have occurred in Europe; the European Union restricts the chemicals used in the American version of Wen. That means the product sold in Europe is made from safe ingredients, while the U.S. formulation contains potentially dangerous components.

How could such a thing happen? We’ve had a Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act since 1938!

To the surprise of most Americans, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require safety testing of personal care products before they are put on the market. 

According to a recent survey we conducted with our Republican colleagues at American Viewpoint, two-thirds of voters believe that at least some of the chemicals used in personal care products have been OKed by the federal government. They haven’t been. 

Lots of people get lots of exposure to products like toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant. On average, women are exposed to 168 chemicals a day in the 12 personal care products they use, while men are exposed to 85 chemicals in the six products they use in a day.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) crafted a bipartisan bill to reform regulation of personal care products, requiring companies to ensure that their products are safe before marketing them and giving the FDA the tools it needs to protect the public, using some of the same basic tools it uses to regulate food and drugs.

The Feinstein-Collins legislation enjoys the support of consumer groups and health advocates, as well as the personal care and cosmetic industry. Our survey showed wide and deep support both for the principle of regulating these products and for the specific tools the FDA would be given.

While some consider regulation a dirty word, voters don’t — at least not in this context. 

We offered respondents two choices. Just 28 percent said, “There are too many government regulations already. People should decide for themselves if they want to use personal care products without government interference.”

By contrast, 68 percent took the position of “The government should make certain that chemicals that end up in my body from the use of personal care products, like makeup, toothpaste, and lotions, are safe.”

Support for the specific elements was even more widespread. 

By a 90-point margin, voters favored requiring “companies that make personal care products … to notify the government if their products have injured consumers” — a requirement that would have helped many of the 17,000 victims of Wen.

Eighty-seven percent would give the government “the power to order a recall of personal care products containing toxic chemicals.” And 84 percent favor government having the “power to require companies to disclose to the government ingredients in personal care products.”

This is a bill that is supported by large majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans; by consumer groups and industry; and by health groups like the American Cancer Society and March of Dimes.

Yet, somehow, it has not yet gotten a hearing, let alone a vote on the floor.

In the meantime, mothers and daughters, as well as fathers and sons, need to be extra careful about what they put on, and in, their bodies.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.

Tags Dianne Feinstein Susan Collins

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