Chemical Regulations: What Is Really in Your Makeup?

Only 11 chemicals have ever been regulated by the FDA for use in cosmetics.

ByABC News
December 8, 2016, 7:51 AM

— -- Americans will spend more than $60 billion this year on cosmetics, but have you ever thought about all the chemicals that may be in your favorite products?

You may think the United States government reviews the safety of all the lotions, creams, sprays and makeup you use, but that is not the case. Now lawmakers are raising concerns and asking questions about possible risks, and calling for the FDA to step in.

The last legislation passed to regulate safety of cosmetics was passed nearly 80-years-ago, and now the cosmetics industry could face increased scrutiny by the U.S. government, as a new bill that would give the FDA more teeth is gaining traction in Congress.

“I don’t really think about the products I use in my bathroom,” Ally Cao, 18, of Berkeley, California, told ABC News, adding, however, she does “have some worries.”

Only 11 chemicals have ever been regulated by the FDA for use in cosmetics. And no safety tests are required before beauty products hit store shelves.

Now lawmakers and celebrities are hoping to change that with legislation that would require the FDA to evaluate the safety of at least five chemicals a year and give the FDA the power to recall dangerous products.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the bipartisan legislation titled "Personal Care Products Safety Act," to protect consumers and streamline industry compliance, they said in a statement about the bill.

“From shampoo to lotion, the use of personal care products is widespread, however, there are very few protections in place to ensure their safety,” said Senator Feinstein. “Europe has a robust system, which includes consumer protections like product registration and ingredient reviews. I am pleased to be introducing this bipartisan legislation with Senator Collins that will require FDA to review chemicals used in these products and provide clear guidance on their safety.”

It also has the endorsement of nearly two dozen beauty brands and stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, who said in an email rallying support, “Consumers deserve to know the products they use every day are safe.”

ABC News wanted to see if our bodies are actually absorbing the chemicals that we’re putting on each day. We looked at two common chemicals: parabens, which can act as preservatives, and phthalates, controversial chemicals often used to make fragrances last longer. The CDC says the health effects of low-level exposure to these chemicals are “unknown.”

"Human health effects from environmental exposure to low levels of parabens are unknown," according to the CDC website.

After getting a baseline measurement of the chemicals in ABC News' correspondent Mary Bruce's system, for three days, she used only beauty products containing the two chemicals, parabens and phthalates. Then, for five days, she cut them out completely, using only products excluding those chemicals for her daily routine.

ABC News took urine samples at each stage of the experiment and sent them to the California Department of Health for review, then met with University of California-Berkeley researcher Kim Harley for the results.

When Bruce switched to using only products with the chemicals, the level of parabens in her system went off the charts, going up to 386 ug/g, from her baseline of 38 ug/g. The average American woman, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has 23 ug/g.

When she changed to the low-chemical products, the “levels basically plummeted,” said Harley. “You went down to 6 [ug/g].”

The same thing happened with phthalates, going from her baseline of 87 ug/g, up to 284 ug/g, and back down to 45 ug/g. The average for women is 43 ug/g.

The Personal Care Products Council told ABC News families "can feel confident they are protected" and that manufacturers use "the best science and latest available research" to ensure safety before products hit store shelves.

“Families who use cosmetics and personal care products can feel confident that they are protected by a combination of federal safety regulations by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a strong commitment by manufacturers to utilize the best science and latest available research data to substantiate the safety of a cosmetic product before it is marketed," Beth Jonas, Ph.D., the Chief Scientist for the Personal Care Products Council told ABC News in a statement. "This commitment to safety is the industry’s cornerstone with companies employing thousands of scientific and medical experts who are devoted to studying the safety of human health in relation to products and the ingredients used in them."

The FDA recently came out in support of independent review and stronger safety rules in a letter to Senator Feinstein, saying, the "FDA has much less legal authority to protect consumers from unsafe cosmetics than it does for other products the Agency regulates."

If you’re concerned about the chemicals that may be in your system from all these products, the good news, as our own tests showed, is that a few small changes can have a big impact in a short amount of time.

Harley visited with Cao to check the chemicals in the products she’s using every day.

“One thing I would tell you to look for first is fragrance,” said Harley. “Look for products that have shorter ingredients lists and fewer chemicals, that have names you can actually pronounce. That would be a good start.”