Chronic under-regulation

Readable Research | By Abby Ferla |

General Accounting Office (GAO, since 2004 the “Government Accountability Office”) reports that cosmetic products use at least 100 chemicals listed as suspected carcinogens in the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances. According to the Office’s research, toxic chemicals could be found in at least eight hair dyes available for sale.1

A GAO representative tells a House subcommittee that the “FDA lacks authority to require compliance with the regulations it does set, does not have authority to require testing and has been refused access to records such as formulas used and consumer complaints because it has no authority to require such records.”

The GAO is also critical of the FDA for “alleged laxity of enforcement of existing federal cosmetics law.” Though the FDA is authorized to inspect plants, sample products, and require warning labels, the GAO charges that agency efforts in all of these areas have been inadequate and that the FDA has failed to “establish regulations limiting color additives that are not safe for use in cosmetics and for not establishing tests for safety evaluation of cosmetics.”

FDA cites inadequate resources as a cause of lack of enforcement and asks for repeal of legislative ban on regulating hair dyes as well as authority to require testing and agency approval.       

Meanwhile, the cosmetics industry asserts safety of its products and claims that self-regulation is wholly effective. The manufacturer of Grecian Formula 16, a hair dye that the GAO study alleges contains lead acetate, says that its products only have only minute amounts of the carcinogen. It tells the Washington Post that the study is “irresponsible.”

Betty Anne Williams, Untitled, The Associated Press, February 3, 1978, accessed August 11, 2011,


The National Commission on Working Women, a division of the Washington-based advocacy group Wider Opportunities for Women, releases a report entitled, “Caution: Your Work May be Hazardous to Your Health.” One major finding of the report is that the chemicals in hair dyes and cosmetics impair the health of hair-dressers and cosmetologists, as evidenced by the higher rates of breast, genital, digestive, and respiratory cancers found in workers in these trades than in the overall female population. (The Commission’s report is focused on Occupational Health and Safety Administration and does not address FDA responsibility.)

A United Press International article reports that both toxic chemicals used in the workplace and rates of skin disease in employees are on the rise. Additionally, the article suggests that the FDA learns about only a small fraction of the amount of cosmetic-related consumer complaints that the manufacturers receive.

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