Mystery tubes an FDA approved stamp and a recall slip
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Safety Report

With New Legislation, You Can Expect More Recalls to Hit the Beauty Industry

Ramped-up safety testing required by the new law MoCRA could soon mean a whole different look for the beauty industry. Here’s what you need to know.

Amid all the breaking news in the United States at any given moment, you might have missed a recent, major development in the way your makeup, skin care, hair care, and more are regulated: On December 29, 2022, the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA) was signed into law. 

The beauty industry has had two months to process this new legislation — the first overhaul of ingredient regulations since before WWII — and there is optimism that it could be a great thing for consumers. But there are also some very big question marks: Will the new laws have an outsized impact on smaller, niche brands, while bigger ones go on with business as usual? And with more safety testing required, what exactly could we learn is lurking in our lipsticks? We talked to industry insiders about what they think MoCRA is going to mean for our favorite shampoos, moisturizers, and more.

Meet the experts:

1.  The FDA can now recall dangerous products. Yep, you read that right. The FDA has not previously been able to demand that a beauty product contaminated with something dangerous like asbestos or lead be taken off the shelves. So when you see brands recalling products — after learning about contaminants, for example — it's all entirely voluntary. A few recent examples of that scenario: Certain spray-on sunscreens and aerosol dry shampoos and leave-in conditioners were pulled after an independent lab found they were contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, and a mass-market body lotion and a high-end laundry detergent were voluntarily recalled because of potentially harmful bacteria growth. "Most often, recalls are due to microbial contamination that’s pretty readily noticed by the company themselves, so they'll pull the product," says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski.

Before MoCRA, the FDA could request that a company recall a product, but that company wasn’t required to issue the recall. They could ignore the FDA — as in, the government agency that oversees the beauty industry — and how messed up is that? "The FDA just hasn’t had the kind of authority it needs to ensure cosmetic products are safe in the past and this new law is helping to fix that," says Senator Patty Murray (D) of Washington State, who spearheaded the law's passing. Under MoCRA, says Murray, the FDA "can require reporting of safety concerns and, crucially, force recalls, so dangerous products don’t put people at risk." 

Effective immediately, the FDA has enough muscle to demand recalls. And that could mean more of them — involuntary ones — in the future.

2. You might be hearing more about scary ingredients. MoCRA is going to mean that more frequent testing for contaminants — like mercury, lead, benzene, and asbestos — will be required by beauty companies by the end of 2025. (Talc-containing products will have to undergo particularly rigorous screening for potential asbestos contamination.) But we might be seeing new headlines about nefarious ingredients in beauty products a whole lot sooner, perhaps in the coming months. While manufacturers certainly aren’t incentivized to run tests that can pick up very low trace levels of carcinogens — levels below what the FDA deems "safe" — Romanowski predicts that independent labs will be conducting more sensitive tests that can detect those trace amounts. "It makes a good story," he says. "There's a certain amount of power in being able to point out things that aren't a problem, but you can certainly make them a problem if the public gets scared enough about it."

Backing up for a second: Even potentially dangerous ingredients like benzene and mercury can exist at "safe levels," deemed nontoxic by the FDA, in the creams and makeup you use every day. It used to be the case that testing wasn't advanced enough to find these ingredients below those "safe levels." But "analytical chemistry instrumentation continues to get more sensitive," says Romanowski. "So, whereas you couldn't detect lead in lipstick under one part per million [before], well, when you can [detect it at] one part per trillion, you're going to find lead in everything."

Take the benzene example: It's possible this recent wave of recalls was spurred on by unprecedented contamination of aerosol sprays. It's also possible that benzene was already in some aerosol sprays, it just wasn’t there at levels high enough to be detected by the old tests. Maybe there weren't benzene recalls before because "nobody was checking for benzene," says Romanowski. "[Then] an independent company checked for benzene because they can [now] detect it at really low levels… [and that's] the reason that there were so many recalls." 

Romanowski thinks all this testing could spur even more beauty industry legislation. To which a lot of people might say, "Great! We need more banned ingredients in the US!" This country's ingredient safety standards are often criticized for lagging behind the EU, which has banned over a thousand more ingredients from consumer goods than we have. It's something plenty of "clean" beauty brands are happy to tell you about, though it's also worth mentioning that the logic behind this argument has its own critics: "The over 1,400 banned ingredients in Europe largely aren't found in American cosmetics. Why? The list includes drugs, jet fuel, and a plethora of ingredients that are illegal to put in skin care [like prescription-strength] tretinoin," Charlotte Palermino, aka, the internet's skin-care myth buster, recently posted on Instagram. "To use this as your ‘gotcha’ moment is misleading." Romanowski agrees with the sentiment and also asserts that "if you do a survey of beauty products in Europe and compare similar products in the United States, you're going to rarely find a chemical that doesn't overlap. The truth is, big companies are following the EU rules anyway, so the vast majority of products people use are following those regulations."

3. Smaller beauty brands could have a tough go of it. It used to be that launching a beauty brand required pretty major scale — you had to produce enough serums, for example, to satisfy Sephora. Then came the internet and the concept of DTC or direct-to-consumer selling. Being able to sell your products online lowered the barrier for entry. But under MoCRA, that barrier will creep up again. Before or by 2025, "cosmetic companies will be subject to facility registration, good manufacturing practices, good recordkeeping and reporting of serious adverse events, and safety substantiation," says Marisa Plescia, a cosmetic chemist in St. Paul. In other words, a lot of the things Big Beauty does already, will be required of the Little Guys before they can start selling, too. 

And that will call for more cash. "[Maybe] you're going to have to lay out about $10,000 up front and, honestly, most people who want to start the next Burt's Bees don't have that money," says Romanowski. "I often get contacted by entrepreneurs who say, 'I have this great idea, I don't have any money to do it, but maybe you could just work on spec.'" 

That's not to say that MoCRA's GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) requirements are a bad thing. Homespun brands "might grow something in their garden, blend it up in their blender, and put it in their products," says Romanowski. "So they don't have proper specifications and raw material controls. [Requiring these] is safer for consumers, ultimately." 

But it's possible that that honey-and-goat-milk serum you've been buying from a local farm will be spared. The FDA has three years to flesh this part out. Existing companies that earn less than a million dollars a year may get certain exemptions. 

4. Ingredients that can irritate the skin won't be able to go incognito anymore. This one is pretty straightforward: You're going to see allergens disclosed on ingredient lists. In other news, yes, some of the most common irritants in beauty products aren't currently disclosed on ingredient lists. That's because they're allergens found in fragrances — as in, the stuff that makes all kinds of beauty products, not just perfumes, smell so good (or just not so bad). Because fragrances are proprietary, their ingredients didn't have to be disclosed before and irritants were often hidden under the umbrella term "fragrance." But now, companies will be required to namecheck them. The biggest offenders are limonene, linalol, and citral. It's "giving consumers more access to information from manufacturers," says Karin Ross, the executive vice president of Government Affairs for the Personal Care Products Council (the trade association for cosmetics in the US that worked with lawmakers to see this law passed). "Consumers can make informed choices about the best products for themselves and their families. Everyone deserves the right to know what’s in their products." Listing these ingredients "is already done in the EU, as fragrance allergens are the key source of irritation for consumers," adds cosmetic chemist Ginger King

5. So what exactly is the timeline for all these changes? A lot of MoCRA's changes are supposed to happen within three years and the chemists we spoke to expect to see fragrance allergens appearing on ingredient lists closer to two. But the FDA hasn't always kept up with timelines — delays happen, like when the FDA missed a November 2019 deadline for evaluating a backlog of sunscreen ingredients under the Sunscreen Innovation Act (signed by President Obama in November 2014). "The FDA is developing an implementation plan to address all of the new provisions in MoCRA and will share this information when available," an agency representative told Allure in a statement. There's reason to believe that could be sooner rather than later: MoCRA allocates funding to the FDA (eight figures a year for the next three years) to help them put the new changes into action. Plus, "the big companies are doing a lot of this stuff already and PCPC [the Personal Care Products Council, a beauty industry lobby] is on board, so the FDA is not going to get pressure from them or from big companies to delay it," says Romanowski. "The only pressure they would really get is [from] the indie beauty people, who will soon realize that this could be a pain in their ass but they don't have the kind of clout, probably, to delay it."

It's not just Big Beauty that's on board with MoCRA. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit watchdog known for calling out the beauty industry's potentially harmful practices, is also positive about where the legislation landed. "These reforms were urgently needed and long overdue. For too many years, cosmetics were one of the least-regulated consumer product categories," says Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. In her opinion, some of MoCRA's highlights are that "companies will be required to test personal-care products made with talc for asbestos using state-of-the-art methods… and cosmetics companies will have to register with the FDA."

It's a lot to digest, and you can bet there's going to be a whole lot more to wrap our heads around as we continue to watch how MoCRA — and, very likely, more beauty product recalls — play out.

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