Consumers beware: There’s lots of ugly in beauty products

eyeliner-300x238The quest for beauty—whether skin deep or in the eye of the beholder—not only carries high costs. It also can be health risky.

Jane Brody reminds us in the New York Times that due “to a lack of federal regulations, the watchword for consumers of cosmetics and personal care products should be caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.”

Citing a recent editorial in the Internal Medicine publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Brody reports that, despite a $26.3 million lawsuit settlement involving 200 women, a hair care maker continues to tout the benefits and safety of its products, about which federal regulators have received more than 20,000 complaints of hair loss or scalp damage.

She says the incidents involving the WEN product line show the flaws of relying on makers to voluntarily report “adverse” results with “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body … for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”

This differs significantly from more stringent (yet not always effective) federal measures requiring, say, drug and medical device makers to report cases in which patients are harmed or worse.

Northwestern University researchers, analyzing a dozen years of voluntarily submitted complaints by consumers and health care professionals about beauty products, found about 400 beefs filed annually, with “the three most commonly implicated products were hair care, skin care and tattoos,” and “significantly higher than average reports of serious health outcomes” involved baby, personal cleanliness, hair care and hair coloring products.

Consumers may talk to friends and neighbors about their cosmetic complaints. They may turn to doctors and nurses. But when most Americans have problems with beauty items, they rarely turn to the federal Food and Drug Administration or other regulators, the researchers found. The FDA would like to change that, and is encouraging more voluntary reports.

Meantime, Consumer Reports says that it has scrutinized the abundant products that claim to “help stave off thinning hair, fine lines on the skin and dry, brittle nails. Among these are a slew of dietary supplements, some topping $100. These commonly contain antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, or coenzyme Q10, as well as biotin, a B-complex vitamin. The minerals manganese and selenium are often found in supplements marketed for healthy hair, along with fatty acids such as fish and flaxseed oils.”

The bottom line? “For healthy people, there’s no good evidence that supplements can make a difference,” despite the huge sums Americans spend on them.

Further, Ars Technica, in a report that’s worth catching up on, reports that the burgeoning market for and use of health-related supplements has had a, perhaps, expectable harm: Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of supplement-related calls to poison centers increased 49.3 percent.

The tech news outlet finds, citing a study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, says that experts are expressing growing concern that 70 percent of the supplement poisoning cases involved children 6 or younger, more than 80 percent of whom had taken the pills mistakenly. Some of the most dangerous products that kids took were homeopathic—silly and risky nostrums that appropriately might be termed magical bunk.

In my practice, I see the significant harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and from defective and dangerous products. Considerable time can lapse before consumers become aware of the injuries and even deaths that devices and products can cause, as juries have been deciding in recent cases asserting a tie between women’s cancers and the use of talc (baby powder).

Our society’s sad emphasis on appearance not only has created a cosmetics industry with revenue in excess of $265 billion annually, it also has caused a creep in common beauty treatments that once were more closely supervised. “Estheticians” in “medical spas” now administer Botox and laser therapies, treatments that once might only have been performed by physicians.

Go figure. Given what common sense says about possible harms from all manner of these various kinds of cosmetic care and products, what else is there to say? Tell someone you fancy that they look great, just as they are. And mean it. Maybe small doses of self-acceptance can deter big dabs of needless, risky cosmetic treatments of all kinds?

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