A couple of years ago, once I got home after a fundraising lunch, I looked in the goodie bag that had been left under my chair, and found a pair of attractive bottles of shampoo and conditioner. I had read about these products online, in passing – clearly a well orchestrated media campaign, if even I took notice.
The premise of Wen, the brand in question, was that they were natural, didn’t contain any of the chemicals that make shampoos lather and they would restore your hair to its lustrous health in a matter of weeks. The catch was that your hair would look limp and greasy for the first fortnight, until your hair adjusted to the new regimen.
The bottles sat in my shower for a week or so before I gave them a try – I immediately disliked their unctuosness, and washed it all off with proper shampoo. And promptly tossed them in the trash.
Fast forward two years later and I read in the NYT that Wen, the miracle product perfected by some fancy hairdresser and touted by celebrities, is being sued by over 100 people who lost most or all of their hair by using it. You read correctly – a shampoo that makes you bald. Upon investigation, the company has received over 20,000 complaints.
This story raises two points: 1. never believe the hype spread online 2. how is it possible that this happened to thousands of people and the FDA didn’t intervene? And, more importantly, how can we figure out what cosmetics are not harmful?
My excuse is that life is just too busy. I already spend so much time deciding what food to keep in my kitchen, and cooking it, that having to research every beauty product I use feels like an insurmountable task. But I also know we cannot rely on the governmental safeguards already in place. And then there are the urban myths that float around for years, such as the aluminum in deodorants being linked to cancer. What is one to do?
I try to buy products that are not tested on animals and, by and large, that information can be obtained on many sites, of which Peta is just the better known. I switched to shampoos that do not contain parabens, forcing me to remember my eyeglasses when I go to the market so I can read the miniature lists of ingredients. But there are endless lists to remember: what a sunscreen is supposed to contain; what shouldn’t be in your moisturizer etc, making the task of taking care of oneself ridiculously onerous.
The European Union is stricter in monitoring beauty products hence any formula made in Europe is more likely to be less damaging. Anything labelled “natural”, we now know has little meaning or veracity and I usually stay well away from it – there is a good chance natural hides something.
In the US, the FDA, that regulates food products, does not regulate cosmetics to the same extent. First of all, cosmetics companies are not required by law to report any adverse reaction consumers might have reported: not even death. So the FDA relies on consumers to directly contact the agency before an investigation can be opened. In the end, if any of the ingredients are not found to be contaminated or misbranded, there is not much the FDA can do.
In the case of Wen, the company has settled privately some of the lawsuits and the FDA has so far found nothing wrong with the shampoo ingredients.
Dianne Feinstein, the Senator from California, together with Senator Collins, have introduced a bill that would regulate the cosmetics industry a bit more tightly: companies would be required to report adverse effects and the FDA could order recalls of products found dangerous. The bill would force the collection of $20 million in fees annually, directly from beauty care companies. The American Cancer Society, Good Housekeeping, the Environmental Working Group all support it, as well as all the major beauty companies such Estee Lauder, Johnson and Johnson, Procter and Gamble (which account for so many brands such as Bobby Brown, Olay, La Mer etc). Many smaller companies are quietly lobbing against this: their main objection is to the fee collection and the forced recall.
For once, I find myself on the side of the behemoths who, often disparaged for not being “natural” enough”, wish for more clarity.
I often chastise my mother for her rebranding of the past: everything was better and easier when she was younger. I am not that sort of nostalgic but, in some instances, I am left to wonder if having fewer choices and less access to information was a blessing. I don’t really believe it but the work that is required of me as an average consumer can feel relentless!