You might think that since the FDA will not defend our health before harmful products are marketed, and cannot act after harmful products are in use, at least we have ingredient labels to fall back upon as a guide to making safe choices. But that’s just wishful thinking. The reality is very different from what manufacturers want you to believe.

The only real legal requirement manufacturers adhere to, one that in theory could benefit consumers, is the listing of ingredients on product labels. Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, manufacturers are required to list, in descending order of quantity, the ingredients of every cosmetic and personal-care product on its product label. But there are numerous significant loopholes in this law, and these loopholes negatively affect our choices as consumers and our ability to identify dangers to our health.

About half of all labels on 14,200 products examined by Environmental Working Group (EWG) researchers turned out to have mislabeled ingredients. Some ingredient names were misspelled; other names for the same ingredient varied according to the manufacturer. Even more damning, EWG identified forty-one online retailers of cosmetics that failed to post ingredient lists at all, rendering online purchasers unable to make informed buying choices.

When the EWG urged the FDA to pressure these cosmetics companies to post ingredient information on their Web sites, the FDA replied that “there is no requirement that a manufacturer put an ingredient list on a Web site.”4 So much for the public’s right to know!

Most cosmetics and personal-care corporations exhibit either outright disrespect for the public’s right to know the dangers in everyday products, or else they abuse or attempt to redefine words such as “natural,” so as to thwart the average person’s best intentions at self-education and self-protection.

While to any reasonable person “natural” implies something taken directly from nature, the law doesn’t prohibit synthetic chemicals from being included in products labeled with the term. Some products labeled as natural even contain nothing but synthetic ingredients.

Some of the other major loopholes in labeling laws and practices:

Generic terms on labels often hide the identity of some toxic ingredients. For example, the term “Fragrance Free” may sound as if it means no fragrance chemicals have been added to the product, but manufacturers can legally add unidentified fragrance ingredients to mask foul odors generated by other chemicals and still call the product “Fragrance Free.” Since fragrances are treated as valuable trade secrets by fragrance and perfume manufacturers, hundreds of the chemicals that show up in fragrances in personal-care products are never listed on labels. And data compiled by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health indicated that of 3,000 ingredients commonly used by the fragrance industry, about 900 have been identified as toxic.

Fragrances, generally, are exempt from labeling requirements, which means that ingredients such as phthalates, the proven hormone disrupters, are frequently not disclosed on labels on the specious grounds that, in the majority of products, they are components of fragrances.

• Still another labeling loophole is that products designated as “For Professional Use Only” and sold to salons do not need to have their chemical ingredients labeled. That means consumers, as well as the owners and employees of salons, are completely at manufacturers’ mercy when it comes to ingredient safety; they don’t have the ability to exercise choice because they have no way of knowing what contaminants products contain.

While the terms “hypoallergenic” (meaning that it contains no common allergens), “allergy tested,” and “safe for sensitive skin” all have considerable promotional value for manufacturers and retailers, they have no real meaning under the law. Manufacturers are not required to do any skin testing to validate such claims, nor do these claims need to be proven to the FDA or any other regulatory body.

Hidden carcinogens are also not identified on product labels. Because they are not in the product intentionally, there is no requirement to list them.

The trade secrecy laws that allow manufacturers to withhold product ingredients, such as those in fragrances, are nothing more than marketing strategies designed to manipulate consumers. The FDA supports trade secrecy and nondisclosure by manufacturers on the grounds that “consumers are not adversely affected—and should not be deprived of the enjoyment” of these products, as if disclosing toxic ingredients was somehow synonymous with deprivation. And the absurdity of the “protection” companies receive from trade secrecy laws comes into sharper focus when you realize that most product competitors have the technical expertise to back-engineer product ingredients created by their rivals—which means that it is really only consumers who are being kept in the dark about the identity of product ingredients.

A more subtle layer of public deception that shields dangerous chemicals from scrutiny is the result of the intimidation tactics sometimes used against experts who go public about health hazards. Some of the best examples illustrating this pattern of retaliation against dissent come from FDA and manufacturer responses to criticisms of pharmaceutical drugs. New Scientist magazine reported in 2007 how a well-respected physician who had raised concerns about serious side effects associated with the diabetes drug Avandia was attacked by the FDA, which sent news media organizations unsubstantiated allegations against the whistleblower. As a result of such tactics, scientists and physicians are often reluctant to publicize their concerns.

There are avoidable exposures to carcinogens that the public never learns about, and that the industry is able to suppress, because the FDA never points out dangers in cosmetics and personal-care products independent of the industry itself. The key player in this process is the industry’s trade association. Founded in 1894, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA), comprising more than 600 manufacturers and distributors of cosmetic, fragrance, and personal-care products, as well as suppliers and packagers of raw materials for the industry, has been at the forefront of championing “voluntary self-regulation and reasonable government requirement.” In 2007, the group changed its name to the Personal Care Products Council.

The Council maintains dozens of full-time lobbyists at the federal and state levels of government and with this highly paid team has pursued an aggressive political agenda against what it considers to be “unreasonable or unnecessary labeling or warning requirements.” Among its many successes in stifling public disclosure was the blocking of a bill in the New York legislature that would have required a cancer warning label on cosmetic talc powder.

An essential part of the Council’s work is to reassure consumers that everything they buy is safe, everything is under control, and no one needs to worry. As Stacy Malkan pointed out in her 2007 book Not Just a Pretty Face, the trade association had the following misleading claim posted on its consumer education Web site as of January 2007: “The FDA routinely conducts studies and tests to ensure the safety of all cosmetic products…. FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics is comparable with its authority over FDA-regulated products, such as foods, nonprescription drugs, and nonprescription medical devices.”

Why would the industry’s mouthpiece be telling consumers something so blatantly false? The FDA has never “routinely” tested cosmetics and personal-care ingredients or products. The Agency does not even require that manufacturers prove their ingredients and products are safe for human use and health. What this trade association and the industry it represents continue to count on is the passive acquiescence of consumers and their gullible acceptance of every reassurance, no matter how hollow, that the trade group propagates in furthering the industry’s agenda.

The cosmetics and personal-care products industry successfully created the illusion of public safety, and so long as profits stay high, they will not be too concerned about liability issues associated with harmful ingredients in their products; they feel confident they can always create enough doubt about health claims to avoid accountability in any court of law. Meanwhile, mainstream consumers are mostly content to believe that if the products they use contained threats to their health, the FDA would surely intervene and alert them. That same attitude prevails among the various state regulatory agencies (with the exception of California’s), resulting in those agencies’ failure to exercise product oversight because they choose to believe that the FDA is already doing an adequate job. This attitude also pervades the U.S. Congress, where most members would rather not bother with a health issue unless the cause is easily traced and the deaths and injuries easily quantifiable.
While it may seem trite to say that consumers must assume responsibility for their own safety and health, the reality is that, in the absence of leadership from the various states, until Congress legislatively forces the Food and Drug Administration to do its job, we have only ourselves to rely upon.