A significant number of beauty and wellness products caused adverse affects as reported by users, according to a study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine scientists in Chicago. Researchers tracked reports from 2004 to 2016, which numbered 5,144 total and rose from 706 in 2015 to 1,591 last year, according to the report.
The three categories implicated most often — showing increased reports of adverse affects — were hair care, skin care and tattoos. Products with reports of serious health outcomes that were “significantly higher than average” (35%) were, in order: baby, unclassified, personal cleanliness, hair care and hair coloring.
The report was based on reports to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Adverse Event Reporting System.
Northwestern researchers noted that the F.D.A. “defines cosmetics as articles for beautification, cleansing, or altering physical appearance.” Unlike manufacturers of devices, medicines and dietary supplements, cosmetic makers don’t have to notify the F.D.A. of adverse events, meaning that such problems are primarily reported by users. As a result, the CFSAN database reflects a small subset of these events, the researchers noted.
“Better cosmetic surveillance is needed given their ubiquity and lack of a premarket approval pathway,” the scientists said in their report. “The lack of high-quality data leads to reactionary responses by the FDA subject to consumer pressure as evidenced by the WEN conditioners controversy. The first step to improve cosmetic safety is broader reporting, especially from manufacturers.”
But efforts to boost regulation have largely gone nowhere, despite increased complaints and high-profile health debacles like that over WEN hair care products, which users said caused problems from scalp irritation to hair loss. The FDA did investigate the issue after receiving 127 consumer complaints and found out that WEN itself had fielded some 21,000 complaints, the Northwestern researchers noted.
While policymakers have seen proposed bills die in Congress, pressure from consumers for safer products is mounting — and retailers are responding. In January, for example, Target unveiled a sweeping new approach to its chemical strategy, promising increased transparency and healthier, more natural products and operations, as well as pledging to list all ingredients in all owned and national brand products by 2020. The retailer also said it would formulate beauty, baby care, personal care and household cleaning products without phthalates, propylparaben, butyl-paraben, formaldehyde, formaldehyde-donors or nonylphenol ethoxylates by the same time; would produce textiles without adding perfluorinated chemicals or flame retardants that are potential carcinogens or pose harm to guests, workers or communities by 2022; and will leverage its size and scale to work with vendors to make both products and operations greener. Target also said it expects to invest up to $5 million in green chemistry innovation by 2022.
But regulation of ingredients is tricky, primarily because the federal government doesn’t regulate some substances until harm has been adequately demonstrated — sometimes requiring large numbers of studies or a health event of some kind. That means that shoppers are often left to decide on their own whether chemical ingredients are safe.
The truth is that without many of the chemicals on Target’s list, it can be hard to maintain a product’s appeal or effectiveness — a conundrum demonstrated by Honest Co.’s struggles. The consumer goods company, which promises “safe and effective products for family and home,” faced complaints from consumers that its sunscreen allowed severe sunburns and from advocates that its laundry detergent contains a chemical that the company said it doesn’t have (and that co-founder Jessica Alba has told people is a toxin to avoid).
But even if consumers can’t always sort all of this out, trends favor companies that eschew scary-sounding additives, according to experts from professional services network PwC.
“Consumers are more savvy about the fact that they can ask — they realize that they have a really strong voice,” PwC Chief Purpose Officer and Corporate Responsibility Leader Shannon Schuyler told Retail Dive. “Whether it’s a company creating its own products or a company putting those products on shelves, we’re seeing a trend toward that more educated consumer. What we’re seeing in this area is more and more companies having to look at not just the products they create, but also at their supply chain.”