When it Comes to Beauty Products, Buyer Beware

5 min read  |  September 28, 2017  | 

Oh, how we love our beauty products! We dab them, spray them, sprinkle them, rub them in and pour them on — all in hopes of presenting our best face (and body) to the outside world. For the most part, they make us feel softer, prettier, better.

But what happens when those products do more than what we expected? What happens when instead of doing good they trigger an adverse reaction?

Such an event is not uncommon. Data released by the Food and Drug Administration, and analyzed in a study by researchers at Northwestern University, reveal that skin care and hair care products (along with tattoos) racked up the most complaints from consumers. Their analysis was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The most common bad reaction? Local skin irritation and hair loss or breakage. But there also were reports of hospitalization and death.

This comes as no surprise to Antonella Tosti, a dermatologist at the University of Miami Health System. “Each product has many, many ingredients and because of that some will cause some form of adverse reaction at some time,” she says. “Even with all the ingredients being approved, an allergic or adverse reaction can happen to anyone.”

In other words, the pursuit of beauty is fickle. It will exact a price, but you might not know how much or when it will come due. “It may not be that the cosmetic product is a bad product,” she adds, “but that an ingredient or ingredients in it are bad for you.”

What’s more, the culprits are often hard to avoid — namely preservatives and fragrances. While fragrance-free products are readily available, it’s more difficult to find items without preservatives. “You can’t make a cosmetic without preservatives” since these are what essentially allow items to sit on store shelves for weeks at a time, she says.

Tosti, author of Dermoscopy of Hair and Scalp Disorders, the first hair and scalp dermoscopy atlas ever published, tells her patients who are susceptible to study the ingredients in each product and to stay away from those containing nickel, Paraphenylenediamine (PPD, found in  hair dye and henna tattoo) and Methylisothiazolinone (MI, a preservative used in cosmetics, household products, and paints).  Simply changing brands won’t work, as an ingredient can be used by different companies and across product lines.

On a national level, monitoring reactions to beauty products is a complicated and difficult task because cosmetics don’t need government approval to go to market.  What’s more, it takes a lot of consumer complaints before a product raises a red flag with the government.

In their analysis of federal data, Northwestern researchers found that the number of reported adverse reactions doubled from 2015 to 2016, and that the spike in complaints was driven mostly by hair loss and skin irritation associated with WEN products by Chaz Dean. (The FDA announced it was investigating WEN products in 2014.)

The FDA normally receives about 300 to 400 cosmetic and personal care products complaints a year from consumers, but experts say this is likely an undercount because most people complain to the company, not the government. And unlike manufacturers of drugs and medical devices that have to report hazards to federal agencies, over-the-counter products don’t fall under federal oversight. Nor do their makers have to prove claims of effectiveness and safety to the government — with only color additives requiring premarket approval.

This means consumers need to be wary. In fact, Robert M. Califf, who served as FDA chief, advised in an editorial in JAMA Internal Medicine that “history has repeatedly shown that when there is insufficient regulatory oversight, a few unscrupulous people or companies will exploit the vulnerable public for profit.”

While Tosti advises caution, she says consumers shouldn’t ring the alarm bells indiscriminately. She points out that most beauty products tend to be safe for most people most of the time. She also is not necessarily a fan of botanical products, as “natural” ingredients can cause their own irritation to a person with sensitive skin.  If someone has repeated problems, she suggests visiting a dermatologist for patch testing, a series of tests that can detect both immediate and delayed reactions to allergens.

“Even if you weren’t sensitive when you first began using a product, you may eventually develop a sensitivity to it,” Tosti says. “Sometimes manufacturers add an ingredient and that new ingredient may cause the problem. But even when there are no changes to a product, a person can get sensitized over time because these ingredients are everywhere, in household products, in paints, in cleaning products.”

Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Contributor

Ana is a regular contributor for the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami HeraldThe Miami News and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.

Tags: dermatology, Dr. Antonella Tosti, sensitive skin, skin irritation

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