U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., introduced legislation Tuesday that would toughen safety standards for cosmetics, including requiring regular government testing of products for hazardous ingredients.
The call for testing of cosmetics — from shampoo to lipstick to deodorant — was sparked by a Tribune investigation in May that found some skin-lightening creams contained extremely high amounts of mercury, a toxic metal banned in those products.
The Food and Drug Administration said it currently tests high-risk products but acknowledged that officials had not tested skin creams for mercury in years. The metal is sometimes illegally added to creams because it blocks melanin that gives skin pigmentation. The products are used to lighten complexions and diminish freckles or age spots.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is working on a similar bill in the Senate.
Schakowsky's legislation would require that the FDA decide which ingredients can be used in cosmetics and personal care products. Currently, companies decide which ingredients are safe for their products, with a few exceptions.
Consumer advocates say it isn't smart to allow an industry to police itself. But the cosmetic industry's own trade group announced last week that it, too, is interested in having a formal process for the FDA to review the safety of ingredients. The Personal Care Products Council said it was responding to American consumers who want more transparency.
Schakowsky's bill also calls for stricter labeling requirements and gives the FDA the ability to order recalls of dangerous products. The agency can currently only request a product recall.
Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., are co-sponsors of the bill.
Schakowsky said she has been especially bothered that loopholes in the law permit companies to avoid disclosing all ingredients in their products; for example, they can withhold information on specific ingredients in fragrances.
Lisa Archer, national coordinator for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said more than 12,500 chemicals are found in personal care products, but the average consumer has no way of knowing which are safe.
Archer said the organization, which is made up of groups concerned about chemicals in cosmetics, did its own testing and found carcinogens, including formaldehyde, in children's bath products and hormone disruptors in fragrances.
She said the majority of regulations for cosmetics were enacted more than 70 years ago. "There is obvious agreement that this industry needs more regulation," she said.
Schakowsky's office did not provide a cost estimate for the additional regulations but said costs would be mostly financed with fees paid by manufacturers. Only manufacturers with more than $1 million in sales would have to pay, and fees would vary by company size.
The FDA said it examines both imported and domestic products, closely scrutinizes product labels and monitors the marketplace for ingredients, such as phthalates, lead and asbestos.
In its investigation, the Tribune sent 50 creams to a certified lab for testing. Six were found to contain amounts of mercury banned by federal law.
Of those, five had more than 6,000 parts per million of mercury — enough to potentially cause kidney damage over time, according to a medical expert. Mercury is rapidly absorbed through the skin and can cause severe health problems, including neurological and kidney damage.
After the testing, the FDA launched an investigation into the problem and subsequently widened its probe when elevated mercury levels were found in more than a dozen people using skin lighteners in California and Virginia. The results of the FDA inquiry are pending. The Tribune story also led several retailers and distributors to stop selling the tainted products.