FDA has no guidelines for cosmetics
By Nedra Rhone
Annette Rubin was pregnant with her first son when a scary thought entered her mind. If it wasn’t safe to color her hair during pregnancy, what about all the other products she put on her skin each day? She posed the question to her husband, Dr. Jason Rubin, a family practitioner, who admits he didn’t have a good answer.
“I said, the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] has jurisdiction over cosmetics, I’m sure they require something,” Rubin said. But they didn’t. The U.S. government does not regulate cosmetics or personal-care products at all. “The FDA standards on medication are amazing, but with cosmetics they take a different approach,” Rubin said.
So Rubin and his wife, a cosmetics industry veteran, launched Belli, a line of personal-care products for pregnant and nursing women (and babies) that avoids ingredients linked to birth defects. “It makes sense if an ingredient has a link to a birth defect, why not find another that doesn’t have a problem?” Rubin said.
The Washington-based brand, manufactured by Advanced Bio-Technologies in Suwanee, is just one example of a company seeking to help consumers make sense of the complicated issue of safety in personal-care products.
Though much of the conversation about cosmetic safety has been dominated by debate over whether ingredients are natural or organic, the discussion is much broader. Natural doesn’t always mean safe and synthetic isn’t always bad.
“I have a handful of clients who have lavender allergies,” said Amy Leavell Bransford, founder of the Aviary, an Atlanta-based salon and spa that promotes natural skin care. “I work with products that are naturally derived. The origin is natural, but at some point they go through a scientific process that makes them more active,” Leavell Bransford said. “You used to think certified organic is what you were looking for, but that is really only one piece of the puzzle.”
While terms such as parabens, phthalates and petrochemicals have made their way onto the radar of most consumers as troublesome ingredients to avoid, a single regulatory safety standard has yet to evolve. But pressure is mounting.
Last month, the French government passed a bill to ban endocrine disruptors such as phthalates and parabens in all cosmetic products. And this month marks the deadline Whole Foods Market gave suppliers who make unsupported organic claims to either change their labeling or formulations or face having the products removed from store shelves.
Europe has at least a half-dozen seals and logos that designate products as natural or organic (and presumably safe). The most recent entry, the Cosmos standard, is an attempt to unite the various standards. Brussels-based Natrue has partnered with NSF international in North America, to create a unified global standard. The Washington-based nonprofit Natural Products Association represents more than 300 products that meet a 95 percent science-based standard certified by independent auditors.
With the average person facing exposure to more than 200 ingredients each day from personal-care products alone, consumers want to know exactly what is in that bottle of shampoo, lotion or facial cleanser and to expect those ingredients to be safe.
“Consumers want to return to the products that their grandparents used,” said Cara Welch, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for NPA. “They don’t want to think of the products they are putting on their bodies as a barrel of crude oil.”
In the end, she said, it comes down to manufacturers explaining their position to customers whether it be natural, organic or safe for expectant mothers. Some brands look for the type of third-party verification that NPA offers, and others, like Belli, build consumer trust through transparency with ingredients and ingredient selection.
Rubin acknowledges that the targeted skin care line, which includes body oil, stretch mark fading cream and acne wash, is not natural or organic, though when they first started the line, they assumed it would be. “Natural and organic ingredients had links to birth defects at the same rate as nonnatural ingredients did,” Rubin said. “We love natural ingredients and use them whenever we can, and when we use them, we try to find an organic version, but when it comes down to it, we would rather use a synthetic ingredient that doesn’t have a link to birth defects.”
In the 10 years since Belli was launched, the company has gone from selling a handful of products and working out of the basement to almost $2 million each year in sales, Rubin said. Much of that growth is from word of mouth fueled by trusting consumers.
“It’s a little bit like the Wild West out there,” said Rubin, referring to the lack of regulation in the cosmetics industry. “Many companies are making claims that go beyond what they are allowed to make for a cosmetic product. When we created Belli, we set out to create a product women would trust to work well, but also give them a safety peace of mind.”