big lotion

No One Is Monitoring What’s in Your Skin Care

A bathroom
A bathroom Photo: Matthew Ward/Getty Images

Here’s something you might not know, but you probably should: Personal-care products, like lotions and shampoos and detanglers, they’re not tested for safety by any agency or company outside of their manufacturer. Not even if they’re for babies.

They’re not tested to ensure they contain the ingredients they say they contain. They’re not tested for quality or for allergens. And even in the case where a product causes, say, severe reactions in more than one kid, there’s no direct or required way to report a product or to find out if a particular product has been reported in the past. Product recalls are done at the discretion of the manufacturer, always. Words like natural and organic are largely meaningless. If you’re surprised by any of this, you’re not alone.

When I had my daughter two years ago, I dutifully purchased what I assumed were the best products: small-batch, modern brands with organic ingredients. I shopped at Amazon, at CVS, at department stores. I was, I thought, an informed consumer. I read labels. I avoided perfumes and dyes, excess chemicals and additive ingredients.

I was sort of aware that the FDA doesn’t closely regulate our cosmetics (which include most lotions and skin-care products), but I assumed that baby products were in a separate, more heavily regulated category of their own. I was wrong: Baby products are simply classified as cosmetics by the U.S. government. And because of the long-standing way that our government functions, the system essentially depends on individual companies to test and monitor their own products, with almost no direct government involvement in place, and no required system to report in the event of problems. How many reactions to a given lotion are there each year? No one knows for sure, and there is no protocol for finding out.

There are a lot of minor details that determine how the products you and your kids use are categorized by the FDA, but for the most part, they’re either a cosmetic or a drug. Products with an active ingredient, like true diaper creams and skin-care products for eczema, are generally classified as drugs. But most baby skin care — lotions and creams, shampoos, almost all soaps and body washes — falls under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, which was brought to law in 1938 and has been amended over the years and updated. Those items don’t need approval from the FDA, and the law doesn’t regulate them in the way most of us would expect.

Here are a few choice words from the FDA’s website:

Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products. Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA.

Okay, fair enough: I take responsibility for whatever I put on my face or use to wash my hair. But my comfort level plummets when I think about the products I use on a baby or small child — knowing that the only thing between them and safety is a vaguely defined “legal responsibility,” as mentioned in a law from before World War II.

Though the EU has banned thousands of chemicals it deems harmful, in U.S. cosmetics law, only 11 items are banned. A 2012 study conducted by the FDA found that 400 lipsticks on the market contained lead, and yet the FDA itself cannot issue recalls on products. We all assume it’s in the best interest of a company to keep its products safe, but even in the event of a reaction or injury, a company is not required to report on what happened.

Back to my daughter. I’ve been very blessed: She has no food allergies or sensitivities to anything she’s ever ingested. She’s taken antibiotics and steroids just once, for a winter bout of pneumonia, and had no reactions to those. But she does have dry, sensitive skin.

At first, I tried to avoid creating problems for her skin by buying perfume- and dye-free Whole Foods–level detergents and skin-care products. But to my consternation, we’ve found that what works best is Johnson & Johnson’s lavender body lotion (also known around our house as “big yotion”), Aveeno Baby body wash and shampoo, Sun Bum sunscreen, Aquaphor, and Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. These are not the natural, organic products of my consumer dreams, but they don’t cause reactions. Which makes sense: just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean it won’t irritate sensitive skin. And just because shampoo has quinoa in it doesn’t mean it’ll work any better. Every kid is different: For mine, it’s not even perfumes that cause issues — the products we use every day are scented — and so it’s a process of trial and error.

But the FDA isn’t helping us out very much, either. The question of safety seems more pressing every year, as more new companies try to reach the lucrative paranoid-new-parent market. Walking into any drugstore, you can even find homeopathic, unregulated “medicines” for colic and gripe. I once gave my daughter an unregulated dose of something called “Camilia” in a moment of teething desperation, only to be told by Poison Control that they didn’t know what was in the product, and that it wasn’t in their database. I promised myself from then on: only Tylenol.

A pending lawsuit against Jessica Alba’s Honest Company highlights the lack of clarity around new, supposedly more natural products. The brand has been accused of claiming its sunscreen is “organic” when it contains 11 or more synthetic ingredients — charges Alba has denied. Add this to the complains that it doesn’t even work, and you can see why parents might want more regulation.

In the past, consumer outrage has prompted real results in cases where the FDA can’t step in. In 2013, in response to consumer demands, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would remove all formaldehyde (not even technically an ingredient, but a byproduct of one) from its No More Tears baby shampoo. As noted by the New York Times, Johnson & Johnson walked a fine line, “investing tens of millions of dollars to remove the chemicals while at the same time insisting that they are safe.” Regardless, change came as a result of consumer demand, and many companies are following suit to remove potentially harmful ingredients from their products.

For now, this seems to be the best way to keep baby products safe, since Congress would have to change the laws in order for the FDA to exert more oversight. A 2006 paper published by a Harvard Law School student examined the history of the cosmetics industry’s self-regulation and found it to be impressive on many counts, and no doubt it is. But few parents want to depend on the forces of capitalism to keep their kids safe. The odds might be good, but the stakes are high.

If nothing else, knowing that very little consumer protection exists may help us make more informed decisions, by slowly learning how and who manufactures our products, and by learning not just to glance at labels but to recognize potentially bad ingredients, the way many of us came to avoid sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup in our foods. It might be labor-intensive, but right now, it’s the best option.