A new study has uncovered that over the past two years, the number of negative health reactions to cosmetic products reported to the Food and Drug Administration has skyrocketed, with the majority of complaints coming from consumer reactions to hair products.

According to the study, published recently in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, in the 10-year period from 2004-2014, the FDA received an average of 285 reports per year about adverse health reactions caused by hair and cosmetic products that were on store shelves at the time. In 2015, that number shot up to a reported 706 complaints. By 2016, it doubled to 1,591 reports with more than two-thirds stemming from negative reactions to hair products.

Adverse Event Reports for Cosmetics and Personal Care Products From 2004 to 2016 Consumer-reported adverse reactions to cosmetics have skyrocketed in the last two years. (Photo: JAMA Internal Medicine)

Why it matters

These numbers are alarming for two reasons:

  1. They represent just the tip of the iceberg. Cosmetic manufacturers are not currently obligated to tell the FDA when consumers complain to them directly about a health reaction to a product.
  2. They highlight just how little control the FDA has over the products it is tasked with regulating.

The FDA is the government agency responsible for ensuring the safety and efficacy of all food and drugs available in the U.S. That's everything from produce to perfume to penicillin. But when it comes to cosmetics, the agency has much less authority to recall products from the market than it does with say, a bad batch of enchiladas.

As mentioned, cosmetic manufacturers are not required to report adverse health reactions that are reported to them directly. So if a consumer writes or calls a company to say that all of their hair fell out when using product X, the manufacturer of product X does not have to do anything about it.

This is exactly what happened recently with the problems that arose from the WEN by Chaz Dean Cleansing Conditioners. In 2014, the FDA received 127 consumer complaints specifically mentioning these products. It was only when the company was confronted that the FDA learned that the manufacturer had already received 21,000 consumer complaints regarding these products involving everything from scalp irritation to alopecia.

What the FDA (and you) can do

What's even more troubling is that these products are still on the market while the FDA investigation into the consumer reaction claims is ongoing. When it comes to cosmetic products, the FDA doesn't have the authority to recall products, although it can make recommendations for recalls to occur. That's because the agency is still working under the authority of a 1938 law regulating the safety of cosmetics and personal care products.

For the past several years, updated versions of this law have been introduced in Congress that would require mandatory reporting of consumer complaints and give the FDA more muscle to ensure that the cosmetics and personal care products on the market are safe. But at this point, the almost 80-year-old law still stands.

So what can you as a consumer do to improve the safety of the cosmetic products that are currently available? According to the FDA, if you have a reaction — whether it's a rash or something more serious — you should see your doctor, report the issue to the manufacturer, and report the issue directly to the FDA by clicking "Report A Problem" on their site.

It may not ensure that the product gets pulled off the market but, if the issue is widespread, it will give the FDA a stronger case for recommending a recall.