Historian's book tells how cosmetics industry came to be regulated

imageAs women began buying more cosmetics instead of using homemade concoctions in the early 20th century, the dangers of unregulated mass production gradually became apparent. Women and their advocates raised the alarm, and an act of Congress was the result.

Dr. Gwen Kay, an assistant professor of history at SUNY Oswego, tells the story of the grassroots activism that helped change public policy in her book “Dying to Be Beautiful: The Fight for Safe Cosmetics.” Published in February, it is the newest volume in The Ohio State University Press series Women, Gender and Health.

By the 1930s, women were buying beauty products that contained such harmful ingredients as lead, mercury and arsenic, Kay said. No law regulated their manufacture, and ingredients were not listed on labels.

“People were really dying to be beautiful,” Kay said.

Women who used Koremlu, a depilatory that contained a chemical common in rat poison, suffered nerve disorders that sometimes led to paralysis and death. Women went blind using a popular mascara called Lash Lure, and at least one died.

“These dramatic incidents were caused by seemingly innocuous products used by millions of women on a daily basis,” Kay wrote in her book.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, created by the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, was powerless when it came to cosmetics. The corrective was the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938.

As a graduate student in medical history at Yale University, Kay found that no one had studied the genesis of the 1938 law. She combed the FDA records in the National Archives and found long-forgotten letters, documents and even a public health radio series.

“No one had done anything on the history of cosmetics,” Kay said. “I got to discover all this.”

In her book, which is a revision of her doctoral dissertation, she recounts the personal tragedies that made activists out of women, beauticians, local health officials and physicians who were trying to cure the hapless victims.

“It was grassroots political activism by people who didn’t think of themselves as activists,” Kay said.
One was a 10-year-old writing to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “My mother has been trying to put a new law so that no more poison will be put in this dye,” the girl wrote. “My mother is totally blind and we want you to help us get the law across.”

Kay argues in her book that years of lobbying by ordinary citizens laid the groundwork for the 1938 law, and she shows how the FDA put its new power to use immediately—killing Lash Lure that June—and taking steps to restore public confidence in reputable beauty products.

She concludes her book with the caution that the FDA can act only on complaints and that the responsibility for safety and health continues to fall on the consumer. And she notes that the dangerous dye in the 1930s’ Lash Lure turns up today in some temporary tattoos.

“Dying to Be Beautiful” is available in paperback ($22.95) and cloth-bound hard cover ($64.95) as well as in electronic format on CD-ROM ($9.95) from The Ohio State University Press.

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(Posted: Mar 09, 2005)