Pixie Dusting & Cosmetic Puffery

Bent on raising the bar on your daily beauty routine with good-for-you cosmetics? Here’s what you need to know and where to turn.

As for the problem? No one sums it up better than the U.S. FDA’s own former Director of Cosmetics and Colors — that’s the office that “develops guidelines, regulations and policies for cosmetics.”

Here’s its former Director speaking:

“Most cosmetics contain ingredients that are promoted with exaggerated claims of beauty or long-lasting effects to create an image. Image is what the cosmetic industry sells through its products, and it’s up to the consumer to believe it or not.” – John E. Bailey, Ph.D., former Director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors

82% of Cosmetic Advertisement Claims Found Inaccurate

In November 2014, a research team looked at 289 full-page cosmetic ads in some of the most popular fashion magazines, including Vogue, Glamour, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, and People StyleWatch. In their published results, they deemed more cosmetic industry claims were deceptive than they deemed were acceptable.

The team assigned each of the 757 separate claims made in the advertisements to one of four categories: Vague or ambiguous claims contained a “phrase or statement that is too broad to have a clear meaning.” Omissions were claims that “omit important information” necessary to evaluate their “truthfulness or reasonableness.” False/Outright Lie included claims deemed “inaccurate or a fabrication,” and  Acceptable claims were those “classified as being acceptable.”

“They found that 4 out of 5 of the advertising claims were inaccurate.”

These were big, bold, and flashy full-page ads. Investigating the “deceptive typology,” they found that 4 out of 5 of the advertising claims were inaccurate: 41% were rated vague, 23% were rated false or an outright lie, 17% contained an omission, and just 18% of claims, or 136 out of 757, were “acceptable.” In all, a full 82% of claims were either vague, contained omissions, or were outright lies.

If aghast, you conclude that’s not right and somebody ought to take legal action, you’re in the right. But it’s a David v Goliath world and to cite one related conundrum, Walmart alone is making more on cosmetic sales between lunch and dinner than the responsible FDA office is getting in an entire year’s funding to police these claims and inspect your shampoo and cosmetics.

“FDA’s cosmetic program has remained small and receives about 3% of CFSAN’s total budget. In recent years, we’ve had the resources to conduct fewer than 100 domestic and four foreign inspections per year,” Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition told the House Subcommittee on Health as recently as December 2019. “Of the more than 2.7-million lines of cosmetics imported in the fiscal year 2018, from more than 30,000 foreign firms, we are able to physically examine around 0.2% of imported lines.”

Inaccurate Ingredient Labels

A good personal takeaway? The next time that bold and flashy claims start luring you in, jump to the ingredients label. Yet even here, there’s a caveat: “Ingredients present at a concentration not exceeding 1% may be listed in any order after the listing of the ingredients present at more than 1% in descending order of predominance.” When a shampoo or cosmetic ingredient makes up less than 1% of a product, it can be listed in any order after primary ingredients.

Putting that in practical terms, claims of “vitamin-enriched,” or “with organic nectarine,” and other such comforting claims shouldn’t hold so much weight in your choice of cosmetics.

Further, where fragrances and color additives are concerned, you as a consumer do not legally have to be told its actual components at all. There are 4,000 chemicals used to make “fragrance,” but none will be listed on the product label itself, or almost anywhere else for that matter.

99.995% Fairy Dust; Exaggerated Cosmetic Claims

Perry Romanowski has been formulating cosmetics since the early ‘90s and previously worked for a multi-million dollar cosmetic firm. “My company had a rule that you had to add these ingredients at a minimum of 0.05%,” he says. “So, even if the ingredient didn’t have any impact on the performance of the product, you had to include at least that much. I guess that was because if someone did an analysis of the product, you’d still be able to detect the presence of the ingredient. But detection levels got better and we saw that if we lowered the level of these claims ingredients to 0.005% we could save more than a million dollars a year in cost savings. So, that was the new standard for our claims ingredients.”

“The FDA has no defined limit on how much of an ingredient you have to add to claim it on your packaging,” he says.

“Cosmetic companies can put just about any chemical in any amount into these products.”

84% of Chemicals Detected in 18 Hair Products Weren’t Listed on Labels

In an August 2018 peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Environmental Research, researchers tested 18 products in six different hair product categories. Their testing revealed 45 endocrine-disrupting or asthma-associated chemicals, that 78% of the products contained parabens, and 11 (61%) of them had seven chemicals prohibited under the EU Cosmetics Directive or California’s Proposition 65; five of them being specifically marketed to children.

Perhaps most egregiously, they noted, “In our analysis of ingredient labels, we found that most (84%) of the detected chemicals in these hair products were not listed on the label.”

“Incomplete labeling is worrisome because product ingredient labels are often the only source of information for individuals seeking to reduce their exposure to a chemical of concern,” the studies authors noted.

“Cosmetic companies can put just about any chemical in any amount into these products,” says Scott Faber, Senior VP for Government Affairs of EWG, “including chemicals linked to cancer like formaldehyde, or chemicals linked to reproductive harm like phthalates. Cosmetic companies have told regulators that they now use 93 different chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive harm, or developmental harm.”

Carcinogenic Cosmetic Color Additives

Color additives are the only thing in a cosmetic that requires FDA pre-market approval. There are 40 already approved so with basic knowledge of the color spectrum, there isn’t a single color that can’t already be produced. The three most widely used color additives are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. Classified as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” each of them includes known carcinogens. We use 15 million pounds of color additives in our food alone, with per capita consumption increasing by 5 times in 60 years.

Just as it all starts to look bright and beautiful, safety may be a massively overlooked drop in a dirty bottle. Most cosmetics use chemicals that have never been assessed for safety: “In its nearly 30-year history, however, the [cosmetic] industry’s panel has reviewed just 11 percent of the 10,500 cosmetic ingredients cataloged by FDA,” EWG notes. “The 89 percent of ingredients that remain unassessed are used in more than 99 percent of all products on the market.” Comparing the six most popular shampoos at the time of this writing to the 10 ingredients most chemists and leaders in the natural cosmetics space say should never be used, finds 35 toxic or carcinogenic ingredients, and all of the shampoos compared using at least two of them.

Alphabeautics’ editors compared some of the most proactive brands within the safe cosmetics space as well as the suggestions of several industry voices concerned with cosmetic safety. Our picks and findings are here. Choose wisely.

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