HBO Max Series Highlights Need for Stronger Regulation of Cosmetics Industry

M. Isabelle Chaudry

April 26, 2022

Earlier this month, HBO Max aired an important series about toxic ingredients in cosmetic products. The series also examined the professional beauty industry and the health effects to workers exposed to toxic ingredients.

Toxic ingredients are found in cosmetics and other personal care products. The toxic chemicals used in them have been linked to a wide range of health problems, including ovarian cancer, breast cancer, early-onset puberty, fibroids and endometriosis, miscarriage, poor maternal and infant health outcomes, diabetes and obesity, and more. As I noted in Not So Pretty, "There is a loophole in federal regulation that allows industry to use almost any ingredient and label it as 'fragrance.'"


The HBO Max documentary Not So Pretty is available to stream now.

Cosmetics and other personal care products are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) of 1938, which forbids adulterated or misbranded cosmetics in interstate commerce and provides for seizure, criminal penalties, and other enforcement actions for violations. A separate law, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) of 1966, requires cosmetics to carry an ingredient declaration to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions.

But these laws do not go nearly far enough to protect consumers of cosmetics, most of whom are women.

Unlike drugs, medical devices, and other products regulated by the FDA, most cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval. Instead, cosmetic manufacturers are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before they go to market. As you can imagine, they have little incentive to do a thorough job.

Because of these lax regulations, the cosmetics industry has been largely self-regulated for more than a century. As a result, carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxins are present in cosmetic and personal care products — with no government oversight — and America's women are paying the price with their health and their lives.

Few Legal Requirements

The problems go beyond harmful ingredients.

The industry has few legal requirements protecting against toxic contamination in workplaces. In nail salons, for example, virtually no regulations protect workers, most of whom are low-income immigrant women of color. Chemicals like formaldehyde, Isopropyl acetate, and acetone can be found in these workplaces.

There is no FDA premarket assessment of nail products before they are bought by nail salon owners and managers and sold to customers. Nail product companies can choose not to disclose the ingredients in salon products. And indeed, they rarely do so.

Research shows that salon workers are at greater risk for certain health problems than workers in other occupations. Salon workers face a disproportionately high incidence of cancers, neurological diseases, immune diseases, birth defects, reproductive disorders, skin diseases, asthma, and breathing problems. They're also at great risk of a host of other problems, such as skin conditions, asthma, depression, dementia. And they're more likely to miscarry and give birth to babies with cleft palate and other conditions.

The FDA is in charge of regulating the cosmetics industry, but the federal laws governing these products (the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) of 1966) have not been updated, since their enactment.

We need stronger federal laws and regulations to prevent toxic products from entering the market and to hold companies accountable for marketing and selling products that are harmful to consumers and workers. America's women are depending on it.

To learn more, watch the HBO Max documentary, subscribe to our email list, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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