May/ June 2013 Beauty Tips for the FDA

Did my wife’s cosmetics give her breast cancer?

By John F. Wasik

The FDA was kind enough to let me read through 543 pages of complaints from users of different cosmetics products. People reported about products that burned their skin or caused their eyes to water, and that in some cases sent them to the emergency room. The names of the people involved were all redacted. I wondered how or if the agency was following up on these reports. Despite my queries, the FDA didn’t respond directly, instead referring me to their Web site, which doesn’t have the answers either.

Kathleen’s greatest fear when she was diagnosed with cancer was that our daughters, who were just then getting to the age where they would start to use cosmetics, would be at risk. Again, we can’t know for sure. But there is no doubt that the lax regulation of cosmetics exposes American girls and women—and men and boys as well—to an unknown health risk they do not need to be taking, even if definitive, unbiased science is not always available to evaluate each particular ingredient.

We know, for example, that the skin, our largest organ, easily absorbs cosmetic ingredients, safe or toxic. Repeated low-level exposures may accumulate through a person’s lifetime (such as lead in hair dyes and mercury in skin whiteners). Girls often start using cosmetics at a very young age, thereby increasing lifetime exposure. Puberty is a critical development time for both girls and boys, and exposure to reproductive and/or hormonal toxins often starts before.

So why doesn’t the American public demand that we at least take a precautionary approach, and not use ingredients in cosmetics until they are proven safe, instead of waiting to see how many people they harm?

One explanation is the pervasive corporate influence over how most Americans even think about cancer. Have you noticed all the feel-good advertising that hundreds of companies have adopted to make it appear that they are “working for the cure”? Often they do this by releasing merchandise in pink, the color that has been chosen to show support for breast cancer victims and research. Companies have jumped on the bandwagon to promote everything from pink guns to pink vodka to pink fried chicken. Even NFL players wear pink shoes during the breast cancer awareness period. Some critics call this phenomenon “pinkwashing.”

The first such campaign originated with the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, which gave $1.5 million worth of pink ribbons away in 1992 to show support for breast cancer patients and research. Cosmetics manufacturers have been in the forefront of pinkwashing ever since. Avon, for example, sponsors the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. And, of course, with those Look Good Feel Better bags, the whole industry associates itself with being behind a cure or palliative for a devastating disease—albeit one it may be exacerbating. Don’t worry about what’s in your rouge; the money you spend on it goes to “cancer research,” and meanwhile, using more cosmetics will make you “Feel Better.”

When I challenged the industry’s trade group to disclose what chemicals might be in those bags, the PCPC responded, “In an abundance of caution, certain types of products and ingredients, which may be used safely in products for the general public, may not accepted for use in the LGFB kits … each product accepted into the LGFB program is subject to FDA oversight and has undergone multiple levels of review including safety, quality and regulatory reviews by the manufacturer, and is re-evaluated by Council staff before being accepted for use in the kits.”

Yet as we’ve seen, FDA “oversight” is, to put it mildly, weak. To make sure it stays that way, the PCPC alone spent $809,000 in direct lobbying in 2011, according to its disclosures to the IRS, plus $933,955 in conferences, conventions, and meetings, and $785,000 in travel. Meanwhile the staff of its putative research arm, the CIR, serves at the pleasure of the industry.

As public awareness has grown of the links between environmental chemicals and cancer, at least some politicians have responded. One is Illinois Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, who in 2012 cosponsored the Safe Cosmetics Act. It would have banned the use of ingredients linked to cancer and reproductive disorders while also requiring companies to include complete ingredient labels on fragrances and salon products. Sponsored as well by Wisconsin Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin, who was recently elected U.S. senator of Wisconsin, the bill received strong support from the Breast Cancer Fund, along with other consumer groups. Nonetheless, it received just one hearing in the Republican-controlled House, and never left committee. Schakowsky has reintroduced her bill again this year.

Meanwhile, the PCPC and other industry groups, after a $3.5 million lobbying campaign, seeded the introduction of a weak, pro-industry bill called the Cosmetic Safety Amendments Act of 2012. Introduced by New Jersey Republican Senator Leonard Lance last year, the legislation called for registering product manufacturing facilities, disclosing product ingredients, and reporting adverse events from product use (which, as noted above, is already done through the FDA’s adverse report-
ing system).

The bill favored the industry, because it didn’t give the FDA any meaningful power to take harmful products off the market, and rubber-stamped research from the industry-funded CIR. The Lance bill (which has since died) would also have preempted tough state laws such as those found in California, while the Schakowsky bill would not.

In voicing the industry’s support for the Lance bill, the PCPC issued a statement in April 2012. It asserted, without apparent irony, that “FDA regulation of cosmetics has protected the public for decades, and this landmark legislation will enhance protections for millions of American consumers.”

When I requested further comment from the PCPC, spokesperson Lisa Powers replied, “We support increased regulation and authority by FDA over cosmetics. This increased regulation should allow and require FDA to set safety levels on ingredients found in cosmetic and personal care products. We look forward this year to working with Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle on discussion of these issues.”

Schakowsky is optimistic she can reach a compromise with Republicans. “We’re hearing that there’s some possibility that something on cosmetics might move,” she told me in a telephone interview in mid-January. As of this writing, the legislation has not been allowed to come to a vote.

Research for this piece was generously supported with grants from the Nation Institute Investigative Fund, the Chicago Headline Club, and the National Press Foundation.

John F. Wasik is a columnist, investigative writer, author, speaker, and the award-winning author of thirteen books.


  • Sarah Jancosek Torff on May 07, 2013 10:22 AM:

    Dear John ~

    This is a well researched and,given my fondness for Kathleen and you and the girls, a very moving one. You raise some important questions. But again, whenever the breast cancer issue arises, there is always the need, in an understandable search for an answer to the question, "Why me?" (or a loved one) to look for AN answer. But, with the exception of those with the BRCA1/2 gene mutation, there is no single answer.

    If cosmetics caused breast cancer, particularly pre-menopausal breast cancer, millions of women would develop it. Yet they don't. We know now that some women will develop cancers that will never kill them, while others, despite the organic/vegan/clean living regime, succumb too early to very aggressive forms of the disease.

    The sad truth is, no one is sure what causes breast cancer - there are only correlations. I know. I have lost a mother and a sister to the sister - and I have several significant risk factors for developing the disease. It's something I live with every day. But there comes a point when we have to live with risk, with agony, with "I don't know."

    Under wire bras, power lines, and all sorts of things have been "implicated" in breast cancer - desperate fads - but no clear links. Likewise, even though the eye liner in a cosmetic may have formaldyhide, that does not mean that small amounts absorbed in the eyelid will cause cancer. It may; but to date there is no scientific evidence that it does.

    I am NOT suggesting that cosmetic ingredients shouldn't be regulated. And I am no fan of the FDA. But in the search for answers to complex questions that affect us with such urgency, I think it is important not to light on too-simple answers.

  • gomer on June 07, 2013 7:43 AM:

    If reasoned unreasonableness is the definition of extremism, the reasonable path advocated by the first commenter is the touchstone for being reasonable for the most asinine reasons. Nearly a quarter of a million new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed each year and nearly 40,000 die. I don't think its unreasonable to apply a risk assessment to cosmetics. Too simple answers? That's not a caution against simplistic thinking. That's a call for complacency, denial, and letting business get a way with murder. Use endocrine disrupting substances all you want. But if you want to profit from the manufacture and sale of this stuff to an unsuspecting public, you ought to pay the price. Sadly, that price won't be comparable to the risk and injury done.

  • Lynn on June 09, 2013 10:02 PM:

    The FDA is such a joke. It is worse than no regulation at all, because it creates a false sense of security in our products. I buy European sunscreens that are safer but technically illegal here, no doubt because our manufacturers don't want the competition, but figuring out how to buy European cosmetics is much trickier. Thanks for exposing this, and thanks to my Rep., Jan Schakowsky, for trying to forge ahead with legislation to help remedy another example of the neutering of our government agencies by business interests.