For years, product safety groups like the Environmental Working Group have pushed for stronger regulatory control of the lucrative personal care product industry. Yet while bills continue to swirl around Congress that would revamp the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938, government agencies still have no authority to question the safety of personal care products or to order a recall when consumers suffer reactions. But a recent controversy has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) flexing some rare regulatory muscle and it's helping bolster the case for a new law that would give regulators and consumers a better idea about what's in the products we slather on our hair and skin everyday.
The products at the core of the controversy are the Wen hair care line created by celebrity hairstylist Chaz Dean. According to the New York Times, more than 21,000 grievances have been lodged about the products, with complaints ranging from rashes to hair breakage to hair loss. To address these claims, the FDA is asking the manufacturer to "provide any data that might help us to better understand the reports of hair loss associated with the use of WEN by Chaz Dean Cleansing Conditioner products" because the cause of the negative effects is not yet known.
A spokesperson from Chaz Dean Inc issued the following response to the complaints:
"The Wen by Chaz Dean family cares deeply about everyone’s hair health. We encourage people who inquire about any hair issues to seek qualified medical assistance because it is a complex topic. WEN by Chaz Dean is safe, and millions of bottles have been sold over the last 16 years. We have consistently cooperated with the FDA and will continue to do so. We love our brand and our customers. Through this experience, we have learned that there is an immediate need for more education about hair health and common hair concerns in the industry, unrelated to Wen. There is no evidence that WEN products cause hair loss and the ingredients and formulations meet or exceed safety and quality standards set by the cosmetics industry. We stand behind them."
The issue has stirred up an age-old debate about the safety of ingredients in beauty and cosmetics products and whether or not the government has the power to regulate it. The only law currently regulating the industry at present is the aforementioned law from 1938, which gives the FDA so little regulatory control that it can't even require companies to notify the agency when someone has an adverse reaction, even if that reaction causes permanent impairment or death.
The latest attempt by Congress to revamp the ancient law is the Personal Care Products Safety Act, a bill sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and backed by a number of number of industry giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and Estée Lauder. The Environmental Working Group has also backed the plan.
But resistance to the proposed bill has come in the form of a counter-bill put forth by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) that has been backed by the Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors. (That's a trade group made up of smaller personal care product manufacturers such as the direct-sales company Mary Kay Inc.) Sessions' bill is similar to the Feinstein-Collins bill in that it would require companies to notify the FDA when customers report adverse reactions, but unlike the Personal Care Products Safety Act, Sessions' bill would not give the FDA any authority to order a recall or to collect fees from companies to pay for safety testing.
So yet again Congress is at a stalemate regarding how best to improve the safety of personal care and cosmetics products. And consumers are left scratching their heads — literally — over which personal care products they should trust.