Since 1938, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated the safety, rather than the efficacy, of cosmetic products. The regulation of cosmetics, ensuring some measure of safety to its users, was the result of problems caused by cosmetics, from redness and swelling to blindness, paralysis, and death.
In the late 19th century, women who wore cosmetics did so discretely. Those who did so wore little makeup, applied it lightly, and produced it themselves. Receipt books contained practical information on cooking, soap production, and mustard plasters, as well as recipes for beauty powders and skin lotions. Lead and mercury, widely recognized as hazardous, appeared in recipes, which often delineated the long-term effects, from graying gums to trembling limbs, and then included them in the ingredient list. Because women at that time typically made their own cosmetics, they were well aware of what they were putting on their faces.
In the early 20th century, most notably in the interwar years, cosmetics shifted from small, individual preparations to mass manufacture. In the process, women lost their intimate knowledge of what went into each product. A lack of ingredient lists compounded the difficulty. At the same time, more women began to wear more makeup. The look required a heavy use of powder, lipstick, and eye products. As women wore more makeup, the problems multiplied. In addition to the persistence of lead and mercury in products, coal tar dyes and other new chemicals were present.
Manufacturers, cosmetologists, hairdressers, and physicians read and were aware of potential problems; the public was not always aware. Many in the former group knew that powders made from crushed rice or talc often irritated the skin. The more women persisted in applying these products, the more pronounced their allergic reaction became. Contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction enhanced by repeated use, was a frequent diagnosis. The challenge for physicians was determining whether their patients wore makeup. Some women applied it such that it was not obvious to the (male) naked eye; others feared physician disapproval; and still others regarded it as such a basic part of their routine that it failed to register as a possible problem. At other times, the physician needed to be more thoughtful. In one case in the 1920s, a male patient had a rash on his lips with no obvious cause. Eventually it was deduced that his girlfriend’s lipstick provoked the reaction. In another case in the 1930s, a woman had weakness of limbs, nausea, and fever of indeterminate origins. As the hospitalized patient began to improve, she suffered a relapse. Questioning revealed that she felt so good that she had asked a friend to bring some makeup to her, including the offending product, a face powder with mercury. Discontinuing use of said product solved the problem, although not without argument from the patient, who preferred this product.
Cosmetologists had a personal as well as professional interest in the safety of the products and devices used. These women wanted satisfied and safe clients. The quest for colored or permanently waved hair had its hazards. A permanent wave required the application of chemicals and heat. Some people suffered burns from the combination of the chemicals and the heat used to set the waves. Other women’s scalps burned from the machine around which the hair was entwined. In most cases, the cause was not improper use of the many-tentacled machine, but too much of one or another ingredient in the potion applied to the hair.
Hair and lash dyes derived from coal tar (aniline dyes) were both effective and problematic. Prior to 1938, articles in the medical and beauty literature warned about the danger of these dyes. One such product, Lash Lure, an eyebrow and eyeliner product, relied on a coal tar derivative for its staying power. Several women were blinded after using this product. Less severe reactions included nausea, paralysis (temporary or permanent), swelling (often localized), redness, and irritation.
Two other types of products caused similar health problems. The first was depilatories, used to remove unwanted hair. As with dyes, the stronger the chemical, the stronger its impact. One depilatory, Koremlu, relied on thallium acetate, an ingredient commonly found in rat poison, at quite high and varying levels.
The product effectively removed unwanted facial hair, and occasionally wanted hair as well. Many women reacted poorly to Koremlu, and one died from a staph infection when the thallium acetate entered her bloodstream.
The second dangerous product, for most of the 20th century, was nail polish. Resin and nitrocellulose, used to hold the color, were common allergens. So, too, were some of the dyes for the shades of polish. Reactions to nail polish included swollen fingers, detached nails, itchy fingers and hands, and redness. Women who bit their fingernails or placed their fingers in their mouths occasionally had rashes on their face and lips. One woman had an unusual case: contact dermatitis on her ear. It emerged that her husband snored quite loudly; to combat the noise she slept with a finger stuck in each ear.
Nail polish, and its matching accessory, lipstick, provided many of the health and safety problems in the mid-to-late 20th century. In both products, the ingredient used to hold or create the color was sometimes not the safest one available. In the case of a lipstick by Guerlain, a French company, in 1941 the federal government ordered the lipsticks recalled, melted down into a molten wax mass and shipped back to France. In the case of nail polish, most companies gradually omitted the allergens.
During World War II, some unusual problems popped up in the manufacture of cosmetics, or cosmetic packaging, because of the exigencies of war. Despite limitations, the U.S. government felt it vitally important that some cosmetics still be produced to help boost morale. Although limited in terms of color, perfumes, and other essentials, women bought makeup. No new health problems arose, only the expected: common allergens led to allergic reactions. With the war’s end, many of these problems disappeared as manufacturers returned to their original formulations.
As nail polish ingredients continued to change in the 20th century, some concerns remained and others disappeared. As early as the 1930s, nail polish created problems. Although manufacturers were aware of the problems posed by polish, they did not alter their formularies. By the 1980s, health concerns had changed. Some consumers were worried about acetone in nail polish remover. A harsh yet effective chemical, acetone was a possible carcinogen. Others worried about the health and safety of the nail technicians, recent female Asian immigrants, who inhaled the fumes of polish, primer, and other products for many hours each day as they gave manicures. Nail technicians, unlike hairdressers, are neither regulated nor licensed, so safety measures are ad hoc. These concerns extended to patrons of nail salons, who feared infection from unsterilized tools, exposed skin and unclean water for foot and hand baths.
The federal government has had limited impact with the cosmetics market. In 1938, a revised food and drug act brought cosmetics under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Among other policies, this new legislation demanded an ingredients list of all products. There were some loopholes in this law, most notably allowing for the continued use of coal tars in hair dyes, despite their known hazards. Implementation of this law, slated to take effect in 1939, was postponed to 1941 because of World War II. From the consumer perspective, the FDA’s concern is not whether a product works but whether it is harmful. A lipstick that does not actually last all day, as Hazel Bishop claimed hers did in the early 1950s, was not cause for FDA investigation. A lipstick that caused serious reaction, with multiple reports of swollen lips, a swollen esophagus, or blotchy skin, would be different. From the beautician’s perspective, the regulations did little to protect the people applying the product. As concern mounted in the 1980s, there was little done to protect these workers. Fans, face masks, and other devices have been implemented, and some nail product is free of acetone, parabens (now banned by the European Union), and other potentially hazardous ingredients.