Selling Shampoo, Eye Cream and a Chemical Crackdown

The last time Congress thoroughly overhauled the regulation of personal care products like cosmetics and shampoo, World War II had not yet begun. Nearly 80 years later, personal care is a multibillion-dollar business, and many of the ingredients used in soaps and face creams are complex — and potentially dangerous — chemical compounds. But the laws on the books have not kept up with the times: If a shampoo makes your hair fall out, no government agency can easily compel a recall. That could change soon. Legislation that would introduce a far more serious degree of regulatory oversight to the personal care products industry is proceeding in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Consumer safety groups are pushing for stricter laws. And the call for more stringent oversight of the industry is coming from a coalition of companies that includes Beautycounter, a plucky start-up that is pitching natural face creams as well as regulation. Beautycounter is the brainchild of Gregg Renfrew, a retail executive who has embraced the cause of cleaner cosmetics. In 2006, after a career working with women including Martha Stewart and Susie Hilfiger, Ms. Renfrew watched “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Al Gore documentary on global warming. “It was an incredible wake-up call for me,” she said. Her newfound environmental consciousness soon extended beyond the gas pump. Before long she was trying to rid her home of potentially harmful toxins wherever they might lurk. She tossed her nonstick frying pans and bought stainless steel replacements; threw out plastic containers, preferring glass; and started using natural cleaning products. But when she went to her bathroom vanity, she was flummoxed. “I couldn’t find skin care or other beauty products that were safer but also performed well,” she said. So Ms. Renfrew says she decided to create products that would satisfy her needs. In 2010, she raised money and hired a team that included makeup artists and public health specialists. But as they began developing products, they identified more than 1,500 chemicals and ingredients they thought might be harmful or linked to cancer, and they resolved not to use them in Beautycounter products, they said. The “never list,” posted on the Beautycounter website, includes unsavory substances like the preservative formaldehyde, the synthetic antioxidants BHA and BHT, and the skin-lightening chemical hydroquinone. Ms. Renfrew says she was surprised that so many of these potentially harmful ingredients could legally be used in personal care products. The problem was that there had not been a major update to the federal laws overseeing the business since 1938. “Consumers are demanding cleaner and safer products, but we still have this law from almost 100 years ago,” said Bryan McGannon, policy director of the American Sustainable Business Council, a trade group. In March 2013, Beautycounter began offering its first nine products, including face cleanser, eye cream and shampoo. Instead of trying to distribute through traditional retail channels, Beautycounter took a page from Avon and chose a direct sales model, relying on an army of mostly women who sold the products to their peers. Today, Beautycounter offers nearly 100 products and has more than 25,000 people known as consultants who sell its wares. The company also sells its cosmetics through Goop, J. Crew and Target. Beautycounter says its sales are increasing rapidly. As the company grew, Ms. Renfrew kept one eye on Washington. In 2014, she hired Lindsay Dahl, an environmental advocate, to lead the company’s lobbying efforts, and she started strengthening alliances with nonprofit groups including the Breast Cancer Fund, Healthy Child Healthy World and the Environmental Working Group. Meanwhile, the cosmetics regulation attracted bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and last year Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act. If passed, it would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to test ingredients and issue mandatory recalls for products deemed unsafe. “Our skin is our largest organ, and it quickly absorbs the chemicals in personal care products,” Ms. Feinstein said in a statement. “With increasing evidence that certain ingredients in these products are linked to health concerns, ranging from reproductive disorders to cancer, there is an urgent need to update the 80-year-old law designed to ensure they are safe.” In the House, a bipartisan pair of representatives from New Jersey has introduced draft legislation that could become a companion bill. Last month, the Senate held its first hearing on the issue. Beautycounter does not claim responsibility for getting the legislation on track. Ms. Feinstein has been studying the issue for at least eight years and working on the current bill for three years. Other companies, including Seventh Generation, the Honest Company and even big corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, have also embraced the prospect of tighter regulation. But Beautycounter has been among the most persistent, and vocal, advocates of change. In May, Ms. Renfrew took 100 women to Washington for several days of meetings with senators and staff from both sides of the aisle. “Beautycounter has really invested in the process in a different way,” Mr. McGannon said. “It isn’t often when you have companies willing to stand up and say: We’re O.K. with more regulation. We need it.” Several recent fiascoes have added a sense of urgency to the issue. One of the most prominent examples was when users of Wen, a hair treatment promoted by the stylist Chaz Dean, reported hair loss. Wen, Mary Kay and other independent cosmetics companies, as well as the Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors, a trade group, oppose the Personal Care Products Safety Act. They support legislation that critics say would not go nearly far enough to bring real oversight to an industry with lax consumer protections. It might seem as if the battle lines have already been drawn. But in a twist, Beautycounter has not endorsed the Personal Care Products Safety Act, saying that while it is a good start, it is insufficient. The proposed legislation would require the Food and Drug Administration to test only five ingredients each year. With the European Union having banned or restricted more than a thousand ingredients, Ms. Renfrew says that is woefully inadequate. And the bill does little to promote supply chain transparency. In its current incarnation, it would not require companies to reveal much about where they acquire raw materials or other ingredients. Strange as it might sound in a gridlocked Washington, it appears that some version of the Personal Care Products Safety Act could pass next year. But what shape a final bill might take is not clear. For now, Ms. Renfrew is still lobbying. “We’re thrilled that the bill has been introduced,” she said. “We’d like to see it strengthened.”

New York Times, 8 October 2016 ; ;