Health And Safety

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.

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