In Depth: Protecting consumers from dangerous personal care products

September 15, 2016 06:29 PM

Imagine using a specialty hair product only to see your hair fall out or your skin break out in a rash. That happened to thousands of people who bought and used the Wen hair care system.

Wen is now preparing a $26.5 million settlement following class action lawsuit.

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The Food and Drug Administration was powerless to recall the product, because of a law dating back to 1938. There is an effort to change that.

From toothpaste, to lotions, creams, shampoos and cosmetics, the personal care product industry generates billions of dollars in sales every year and no one regulates it.

"Right now the FDA doesn't even require safety testing for products before they're put on the shelves," noted Christine Hill with the Environmental Working Group.

Proposed legislation by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Susan Collin would give the FDA testing authority along with the ability to order product recalls. However, approval is far from assured, so consumers need to be empowered. That means being educated about what's safe and potentially harmful.

That's where the Environmental Working Group comes in. The consumer group says, don't be fooled by labels. Just because something is touted as natural or pure it may not be any safer than products loaded with chemicals cooked up in a lab.

"‘Natural’ is basically undefined and therefore doesn't have a strong meaning," explained Nneka Leiba with the Environmental Working Group. "One should also realize that just because something is plant based doesn't mean that you want to rub it on your skin. The example I always use is poison ivy."

Over the past 12 years the Environmental Working Group has assessed the ingredients in more than 6,300 personal care and cosmetic products listed in their Skin Deep database. More than 400 of those products have earned their verified mark. In short, deemed safe to use by the Environmental Working Group.

"Rather than looking at the claims on the front, which are unregulated and can mean anything, swing that product over, scan that bar code and look for the skin deep score or better yet look for the Environmental Working Group verified mark because we've already done all of that for you," assured Leiba.

The reason we need to care is concern over long term effect. Cancer or other health problems can take decades to show up.

Already some suspect the earlier age of puberty in girls is tied to chemicals in personal care products known as endocrine disrupters.

"Endocrine disrupters affect hormones. Hormones guide our growth or reproductive development. Hormones are very important, so we're seeing trends that make us really concerned," explained Leiba.

So she says avoid products with parabens and phalates.

Concerned about cancer, Leiba says steer clear of formaldehyde and preservatives that release it like Quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. Polyethylene glycol- PEG is also on the avoid list.

Common foaming agents like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate in shampoos are also on the Environmental Working Group avoid list. Ammonium cocyl isethionate is an alternative.

"Simpler, fewer ingredients, fewer dyes and fewer odorants, fragrances probably," suggested Professor Curt Breneman, the dean of science at RPI.

the dean of science at RPI says, while a product by itself may not pose a health threat when used with another product, trouble can arise. Given how many of these products we use daily, that's a real concern.

To keep us from being human test tubes, Breneman also wants to see the FDA get review and regulatory power.

"Because otherwise what we have is uniformed consent," he noted.

Although the FDA can't issue a recall, it can order a ban which it recently did with triclosan in soap products.     

A ban means the manufacturer is prohibited from using the ingredient, if it can't prove the ingredient is safe and effective.

Consumer pressure brought this to the FDA. However, it's still being used in at least one toothpaste.

If you believe the FDA should be able to test and recall dangerous products, tell your senator and congressman.

More information:

Environmental Working Group


WNYT Staff

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