Ask Karla: What’s Really in the Products I Buy?

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I’ve seen too many shoppers pay top dollar for personal care products that make empty promises. That’s why I recently wrote about How to Read Beauty Product Labels. But what if product info isn’t on the label to begin with? That’s what reader Pattie wrote me to ask about…

I read your article on “How to Read Beauty Product Labels” and have a question. I have written to companies requesting the list of ingredients of their products. Sometimes, I get a rejection. The ones who reject my request claim the formula is a trade secret. Last week, I wrote to Kavi to find out what is the “stabilizing ingredients” in their soap, and my request was denied. On non health care products, I called a bakery to ask what is in their chocolate chip cookies, and they also refuse to tell me. (Most bakeries would tell me; this particular one was an exception.) I am suffering chemical / food intolerance at the moment. That is why I always investigate before I consume a product. Can manufacturer, restaurant or bakery reject a consumer’s request for a full disclosure of the ingredients?

Different rules govern different product types, so I’ll break up Pattie’s answer into sections…

Ingredients of personal care products

As I explained in How to Read Beauty Product Labels, federal law says personal care products like deodorant, shampoo, and makeup must list their ingredients in order from most to least prevalent on their label. (If you really want to know, it’s all detailed in Title 21 of what’s known as the Code of Federal Regulations.)

But this rule (found in Section 701.3 of Title 21) has several exceptions:

  • Trade secrets: If a company thinks an ingredient gives their product a competitive edge, they can request that the Food and Drug Administration consider it a “trade secret,” which allows the company to keep the ingredient secret. This is why you may have seen the words “and other ingredients” on a label.
  • Non-retail products: 701.3 only applies to products that are sold in retail stores. So products used only by professionals, such as your hair stylist or barber, are exempt as long as the products are not also sold to customers.
  • Fragrances and flavors: 701.3(a) states that fragrances and flavors may be listed as simply “fragrance” and “flavor” in the ingredient list. This might sound harmless, but it allows companies to hide harmful ingredients. Last year, a study [PDF] of 17 perfumes and colognes found they contained sensitizing ingredients associated with allergic reactions and hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to sperm damage, thyroid problems, and cancer.

To learn more about personal care product laws, check out the FDA’s Cosmetic Labeling Manual.

Those regulations – which are notoriously lax and date back to the 1930s – could soon change, though. The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, introduced in Congress in June, would help the FDA force companies to list all ingredients and eliminate harmful ones. For a plain-English explanation of the bill, visit (which is a wonderfully informative resource, by the way, if you’re concerned about personal care product safety).

Ingredients of foods sold at restaurants (and bakeries)

Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations also governs food ingredients. Section 101.10 states that restaurants don’t have to provide any nutritional info unless they make a nutrient or health claim. For example, if a restaurant’s menu claims a dish is “low fat,” they have to provide enough info to prove it.

Informing you of how many grams of fat the dish contains would satisfy the requirement, though. Restaurants don’t have to provide nutritional info in the traditional “Nutrition Facts” template that you see on, say, cereal boxes. In fact, the FDA intentionally made Section 101.10 flexible for restaurants’ sake, as they admit in their Labeling Guide for Restaurants.

What it all means

So, the answer to Pattie’s question is, yes, a manufacturer, restaurant, or bakery can often reject a consumer’s request for a full disclosure of ingredients.

My best advice to Pattie is to simply stop patronizing the companies and establishments that refuse to answer her questions. A manufacturer will always care more about its trade secret than any one customer. And a baker who is too lazy or paranoid to share a cookie’s ingredients with a customer with a medical issue doesn’t deserve that customer’s business.

But if you believe a company has violated the law – which could be the case with Kavi, since I found nothing to support their “stabilizing ingredient” excuse – I suggest writing them to explain your situation and ask what section of what law exempts them from disclosing ingredients. Send the letter directly to the company’s CEO (which I explain how to do here) and send a “carbon copy” to the FDA and the local Better Business Bureau closest to Kavi’s headquarters.

Karla Bowsher runs the Deals & Coupons page; posts deals every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and shares consumer wisdom every Thursday. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, or if you want to share a great deal you found (she’ll credit you), leave a comment below or on Facebook, or email her at [email protected].

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