Health Problems from Personal Care Products on the Rise? It is Complicated.

Complaints of adverse health events related to cosmetic and personal care products more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, according to a study published in the American Medical Association’s journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The majority of those complaints stemmed from hair care products.
Northwestern University researchers looked at complaints collected by the Food and Drug Administration from 2004 to 2016. The information came from the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Adverse Event Reporting System, which allows consumers or health care professionals to submit complaints about harm caused by using cosmetic products.  (Source)


Health Complaints from Personal Care Products on the Rise?  It’s Complicated.

I have been analyzing this same database for the past several weeks and the most striking result has been the number (approximately 1,800) and severity of complaints concerning hair care products and in particular, against WEN hair care products (over 1,100).  The majority of those complaints against WEN products ranged from 2013-2016, with a spike coming in 2016, the last year data is available.  While the increase in complaints may be correlated with marketing and advertising efforts thereby increasing the size of their customer base, it is equally plausible that this spike resulted from the substantial amount of attention and press surrounding the filing in late 2015 by over 17 thousand consumers of a class action lawsuit against WEN products.


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Why the ‘WEN’, Not ‘How Much’ Issue is Important

When we read that “Complaints of adverse health events related to cosmetic and personal care products more than doubled from 2015 to 2016” it is important to remember that a substantial amount of those complaints stemmed from WEN hair care products.  It is critical for consumers to know that there is not suddenly a rash of personal care products sending U.S. citizens off to the emergency ward.  In fact, if that were the case, the number of lawsuits alone might be able to persuade big cosmetic and personal care corporations to clean up their act and remove chemicals of concern from our products far more quickly than they presently are.

The reality however, is that the majority of problematic chemicals in U.S. cosmetics and personal care products have been linked in scientific studies with the types of health reactions that take a long time before people make the connection and realize there is a serious problem. Health conditions such as breast cancer and diabetes and autoimmune disorders, for instance, will not surface the afternoon following your morning makeup routine or the day after you slather that lotion all over your arms and legs.  It is this delayed effect, in fact, that makes public education campaigns so challenging to persuade consumers to ditch products containing chemicals of concern.


The ‘Secret Sauce’ is Part of the Problem

When U.S. consumers (and those of us in the public education sector) want to investigate whether a product contains an ingredient that may be problematic for them what they often encounter is corporate proprietary privilege–the ability for corporations to conceal important ingredients from their competitors.  Unfortunately, concealing ingredients from public view also means that consumers are unable to see them as well. This is the case with many products including WEN that only list “key” ingredients for consumers rather than the full list of ingredients.  Media reports state that even the class action lawsuit against WEN does not specify the specific ingredient(s) allegedly linked with hair loss and other adverse reactions, only a vague reference: ‘The WEN products at issue contain a caustic ingredient that causes a chemical reaction and damages hair and follicles,’ as well as ‘numerous harsh chemicals and known human allergens.’


The FDA’s Fatal Flaw


“In 2014, the FDA announced that it was investigating WEN by Chaz Dean Cleansing Conditioner products because it had received complaints of hair loss, hair breakage, balding, itching and rash…In the course of the investigation, the FDA discovered that Chaz Dean Inc. and parent company Guthy Renker, LLC had received more than 21,000 complaints. However, under current regulations, the companies are not required to report these complaints to the FDA…

“Although the FDA investigation is ongoing, the WEN conditioning products have not been pulled from the market.
The FDA has no authority to recall cosmetics products, although it can recommend recalls.
Manufacturers also do not have to receive approval from the FDA before cosmetics go on sale.” (Source)


All-righty, then.  So the FDA does not require safety testing from corporations before they unleash their latest chemical concoctions on consumers, and when the public gets sick and complains to the corporations, they can just keep mum about it, keep the products actively for sale to an unsuspecting public, and continue on business as usual.


Help may be on the way

As we have reported in previous blog posts

“Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-California, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill in May that would require further regulation of personal care products.

If passed, the bill will require the FDA to test certain ingredients. It would also give the agency authority to issue recalls and require more complete product labels and warnings from manufacturers.”


We still await the day when big chemical and big product corporations are actually required to have independent, outside safety testing conducted of their personal care products prior to unleashing them on the public.



Adverse Events Reported to the US Food and Drug Administration for Cosmetics and Personal Care Products