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Did You Know ... Most Imported Cosmetics Are Never Tested by the FDA

Health + Wellness
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By Melanie Benesh

According to a New York Times story published Wednesday, contaminants such as mercury, lead and bacteria, and other banned ingredients, are showing up in an alarming number of imported personal care products. This follows recent news that asbestos was found in tests of imported makeup marketed to tweens.

The Times story is based on a letter sent to Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In the letter, the FDA revealed that imports of personal care products have doubled in the last decade and that imports from China have increased 79 percent in the last five years. The FDA also disclosed that in 2016, 15 percent of imported personal care products inspected had adverse findings and 20 percent of products the FDA tested in its own labs had adverse findings.


Usually, an adverse finding meant an illegal color additive was used, or there was microbial contamination in the product. The majority of contaminated products were from China.

Some of the FDA's most troubling discoveries included:

  • Skin whitening creams with high levels of mercury.
  • Hairsprays containing methylene chloride, an ingredient banned in cosmetics and that has been linked to deaths from its use in paint strippers.
  • Cosmetics kits with high levels of Citrobacter, Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus bacteria.
  • Eye makeup containing color additives, banned for decades because they are hazardous to eyes.
  • Temporary tattoo products with unapproved color additives.

Even scarier, the FDA's findings likely underrepresent the full scale of the problem.

The vast majority of personal care product imports are never inspected. In fact, the FDA discovered the problems listed above by inspecting fewer than 1 percent of imports. Of the nearly 3 million imported shipments of personal care products, the FDA was only able to inspect fewer than 10,000. The FDA only tested an even smaller sample of imported cosmetics: 374.

The FDA lacks both the authority and the resources to fully address the public health risks cosmetics can pose. While the agency can inspect imported cosmetics, foreign manufacturers currently have no obligation to tell the FDA where they are located, what products they are making or what ingredients they are using.

Of the 29,000 foreign companies exporting cosmetics to the U.S., very few have registered with the FDA. There is no obligation to report adverse reactions to cosmetics or make them in clean facilities using so-called good manufacturing practices. The FDA cannot issue a mandatory recall of dangerous cosmetics under current law.

Recently introduced legislation, the Personal Care Products Safety Act, would give the FDA these basic authorities and would also require fees from the cosmetics industry, significantly increasing the agency's ability to address health risks from cosmetics.

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