Updated: Sep 25, 2021
Maybe you've heard someone claim this myth out loud, maybe you've thought it to yourself, or maybe it's just a subconscious feeling of safety and security you get from seeing "official-looking" products in an "official-looking" store display. This myth is often propped up by the following claims:
Regulatory agencies impose strict regulations on products that could harm us
Regulatory agencies act in the best interest of the public
Unsafe ingredients always come with a warning label
Ingredients sold to the public undergo long-term testing to ensure there will be no adverse human health impacts
Let’s look at each claim more closely and explore the evidence:
Claim 1: Regulatory agencies impose strict regulations on products that could harm us
While agencies like the FDA, USDA, and EPA do of course take actions to maintain a standard of quality and safety for the public, these actions are not uniformly strict and their standards are not always in agreement with current scientific findings or with the standards of other countries with more risk-averse regulations.
When it comes to cosmetics (i.e., products that go on the outside of us), for example,
the U.S. market is largely unregulated and federal legislation has not been updated in over 80 years.
We’re essentially relying on a pre-World-War-II interpretation of product safety legislation when the chemical industry has since significantly expanded its reach into consumer product markets. However, the public is becoming increasingly aware of this issue and state legislative moves are at least making some headway toward positive changes.
To give some perspective on where the U.S. stands on regulatory strictness compared to other countries, the U.S. has banned or restricted 11 chemicals of the over 1,500 banned or restricted by the EU. And this trend is not limited to just cosmetics. Artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives that are scientifically linked to harm and banned elsewhere are pervasive in the foods filling U.S. grocery store shelves.
Claim 2: Regulatory agencies act in the best interest of the public
Believe it or not, the public has very little influence on what laws and regulations are enacted in the U.S., due to the influences of lobbying groups. Take a look at this study from 2014:
A recent study conducted by Princeton and Northwestern University called “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” measured influence on policy by examining 1,779 policy issues occurring between 1981-2002. Four groups were considered in the analysis: average citizens, economic elites, mass-based interest groups, and corporate interest groups, concluding (emphasis added):
“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
This data suggests that legislators and regulatory agencies most often act in the best interests of large businesses and lobbyists rather than that of individual consumers. This represents a huge conflict of interest, since businesses can often benefit either from generally lax regulations that save them money or even from selectively strict regulations that give them an advantage over their smaller competitors who have less resources to maintain compliance.
Claim 3: Unsafe ingredients always come with a warning label
While warning labels do identify unsafe ingredients on product labels, there are harmful ingredients that still do not require labels.
The cosmetics market, again, is a prime example of where U.S. regulations fall short. A bottle of peppermint essential oil, for example, can be marked as 100% pure, while only actually having 5% purity. Peppermint will likely be listed as the only ingredient, making one assume that all they bought was pure peppermint. In reality, the bottle may contain a cheap alcohol filler to improve the aromatic strength of the impure oil. It may also contain hexane, a solvent sometimes used during distillation to extract more of the essential oil from the plant. Hexane is known to absorb easily through the skin and lead to cancer and/or permanent nerve damage. What’s even scarier is that the distillation process then concentrates both the oil and the carcinogen. It is, therefore, very important to understand where your products come from, the processes used to make them, and the level of transparency afforded by the manufacturer.
Such cheap and dishonest imitations often contain a warning label telling you not to put the oil on your skin or ingest it. This should raise a red flag, since we know that pure peppermint oil is safe to ingest (per the FDA Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) designation) and apply to our skin. The bottle does not, however, contain a label warning the consumer of the presence of a known carcinogen.
But if it’s only to be used aromatically (i.e., inhaled as a vapor), per the label, isn’t it safe to use as indicated?
No, it isn’t. Inhalation provides a path to your bloodstream via the lungs, which have fairly poor defenses against toxins. In fact, this is how aromatherapy is supposed to work: you inhale a pure essential oil, the natural compounds in the oil are carried into the air, through your nose, and into your bloodstream, then key compounds and secondary metabolites have varied effects in supporting your body’s systems. Throw a cancer-causing chemical into the mix and you’ve accomplished the opposite of what you set out to do.
On the dietary front, the fight to have Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs) called out in ingredients labels is ongoing. This remains a very controversial topic with a lot of money and corporate interest thrown behind upholding the idea that there is a scientific consensus supporting GMO safety. Consumer outcry ranges from assertions that GMOs are not safe and lead to various health issues, to the simple idea that such foods should be labeled so that the consumer is informed about what they are buying and can decide for themselves what to eat. The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that formed to protect the non-GMO food supply and to independently verify and label foods that do not contain GMOs in the absence of a federal regulatory standard. You can download a thorough report on available GMO research here, as well as a report signed by over 300 independent researchers countering the idea of a scientific consensus on GMO safety, here.
When the GM industry was first getting off the ground, there was a concerted push by the George H. W. Bush administration to support the industry and its unprecedented technology by minimizing regulations of it. At that time, senior U.S. government scientists issued specific warnings about the perils of lax regulations with GM technology. Bush pushed the term "substantially equivalent" to describe GM foods when compared to their natural counterparts, which is the vague and unscientific standard upon which our lack of GMO regulation in the U.S. stands. There is also mounting evidence that the weed killer Roundup (often functionally paired and marketed with GMO crops) is a "probable human carcinogen". Furthermore, Bayer (which absorbed GMO giant Monsanto) will now pay out as much as $10.9 Billion to settle nearly 100,000 law suits claiming that the weed killer Roundup caused their cancer. The settlement agreement, however, resulted in Bayer not admitting liability and they will not be adding a cancer warning label to their Roundup product. This is just one high-profile example of how an industry can thwart the labeling of ingredients at the expense of consumer health.
Claim 4: Ingredients sold to the public undergo long-term testing to ensure there will be no adverse human health impacts
This premise falls flat when we examine the long history of substances released to the public that were later found to be harmful: nicotine, asbestos, PCBs, PFOAs, mercury, lead, BPAs…and the chemicals BPAs were replaced with. It’s also worth considering the seemingly endless supply of lawsuits dealing with adverse effects from certain substances or pharmaceuticals. Of course, the mere existence of lawsuits does not support any particular conclusion, but it's a good place to start when looking to understand what claims are out there and what evidence has been gathered.
After resigning from his post as FDA Commissioner in 1969, Dr. Herbert Ley commented,
“The thing that bugs me is that the people think the FDA is protecting them - it isn’t. What the FDA is doing and what the public thinks it’s doing are as different as night and day.”
Dr. Ley had concerns that the FDA did not have the incentive, funding, or support to properly protect consumers. Today, the FDA still has no legal authority to approve cosmetics products or ingredients. The burden is placed on the manufacturer to ensure products and ingredients are safe and to see that any necessary testing is conducted to that end.
None of the four claims explored in this article stood up to much scrutiny. Therefore, the myth that “the store wouldn’t sell it if it wasn’t safe” has been shown to be false. This doesn’t mean that regulatory agencies are completely useless or that no product can be trusted.
It means that as consumers, we have to take a more active role in our decisions regarding product safety.
We need to educate ourselves and each other, pay attention to global trends and scientific studies, and most importantly, stop supporting companies that use harmful ingredients in their products. Recent years have seen consumer demand changing the tide of business practices. Chipotle banned GMOs from its food, Panera removed all artificial ingredients, and companies that use healthier ingredients are getting more space on store shelves. Our collective refusal to settle for questionable ingredients and our commitment to seek out better alternatives has proven to be the most influential approach toward creating this necessary culture shift in the name of public health.