How safe are your cosmetics?
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How safe are your cosmetics?

We've come a long way since European ladies used to powder their faces with a lead-based, highly toxic white face powder. But how safe are the cosmetics you use today? Who has oversight of this $45 billion dollar industry? What should you watch out for, and how can you protect yourself?

We brush, wash and groom ourselves everyday with an astounding collection of lotions and potions. We assume they'll make us cleaner and more attractive, not sick. And we rarely worry about the safety of the ingredients unless we suffer an adverse reaction or hear a negative report in the news.

When it comes to cosmetics, it's not easy to be an informed consumer. You can read the labels, but you'd need a Ph.D. in chemistry to decipher the ingredients. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does provide information that can help consumers decide which soap or skin cream is best for them.

What are cosmetics?

The federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act defines cosmetics as "articles intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness or altering the appearance without affecting the body's structure or functions." This includes products such as:

  • skin-care cream
  • lotion
  • powder
  • perfume and spray
  • lipstick
  • fingernail polish
  • eye and facial makeup
  • permanent waves
  • hair color
  • deodorant
  • baby products
  • bath oil and bubble bath
  • mouthwash

Cosmetics that make therapeutic claims, such as dandruff shampoos, fluoride toothpastes, antiperspirants/deodorants, and sunblocks/suntanning products are regulated as drugs. These products are required to list their "active ingredient" first on the label, which is how consumers can differentiate between cosmetics and cosmetics that make health claims. Manufacturers of these types of cosmetics must be able to scientifically prove that the products are safe and effective before they are sold.

Regulating cosmetics

Cosmetics are not required to undergo FDA testing or approval before they are sold on the market; FDA regulates them only after they are made available. But there are certain substances that manufacturers are prohibited from using.

Perhaps no industry makes more extravagant claims for its products than the cosmetics industry. John Bailey, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, warns consumers that the cosmetics industry sells an image, and consumers can choose to believe those claims or not. The problem is, the claims are in no way uniform.

The descriptive terms you see on cosmetics, like "hypoallergenic," sound official, but in fact they have no regulated definition. Consider the legal definitions of the following claims, and how some manufacturers amplify the claims to their advantage:

  • Natural
  • Contains ingredients that are extracted directly from plants or animal products and not produced synthetically. Tests have yet to prove that natural ingredients are good (or any better) for the skin.
  • Hypoallergenic -
  • Suggests that the product is less likely to cause allergic reactions; however no scientific studies are required to back up this claim. Other untested terms in this category are "dermatologist-tested," sensitivity-tested," "allergy tested," or "nonirritating."
  • Alcohol-free -
  • Generally means that a product doesn't contain ethyl alcohol (grain alcohol) but may contain fatty alcohols such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl or lanolin.
  • Noncomedogenic -
  • Contains no pore-clogging ingredients that may cause acne; manufacturers don't have to meet any set criteria to make this claim.
  • Expiration date -
  • The length of time a product can be used under normal storage and use conditions; a product may expire earlier if it has not been stored or used according to instruction

Deciphering ingredients

The list of ingredients on a cosmetic label is listed in descending order of quantity. You'll find that water is the first ingredient in most skin care products.

Many of the mysterious names on cosmetics labels fall into a few major categories including:

  • Emulsifiers
  • help maintain a mixture and ensure consistency
  • Solubilizers
  • help keep oil and water from separating
  • Texturizers
  • give a desired feel and appearance
  • Opacifiers
  • darken the color of shampoos
  • Foaming agents
  • make shampoos and other cleansers foamy

To learn more about specific cosmetic ingredients, there are several consumer guides, including the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary, published by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, found in many libraries; and A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (see Resources below).

Use with caution

Although any cosmetic can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive people, there are certain products that require special labeling to warn consumers of possible hazards. You should take these precautions seriously and carefully follow the product's instructions. For example:

  • Detergent bubble baths can irritate the skin and urinary tract through excessive use, particularly if you take long baths. Discontinue use if you experience a rash, itching or redness.
  • Feminine deodorant spray for the genital area should only be used externally and not applied to broken, irritated or itchy skin; stop using if rash or irritation occurs.
  • Hair dyes with coal tar can cause skin irritation and blindness if used to dye eyelashes or eyebrows. In addition the ammonia, soaps, detergents, conditioners and dyes found in hair color are also major eye irritants.
  • Depilatories and hair straighteners are highly alkaline and can cause serious skin irritation.
  • Shampoos, rinses and conditioners can cause eye irritation, particularly if the eye cornea is scratched or damaged
  • Nail builders (elongators, extenders, hardeners and enamels) can contain methacrylate monomers or formaldehyde that can cause irritation or allergic reactions. Nail enamels with hardeners have a high resin content that blocks air from the nail surface and makes the nail brittle. These products are also flammable.
  • Artificial nail removers contain a powerful toxin, acetonitrile, which has caused injury and death; these products require child-resistant packaging and should be used according to package instructions.
  • Aerosol hair sprays may contain alcohol and isobutane and are flammable; when using them, never smoke and avoid heat and fire until the product is completely dry.

FDA has received reports of adverse reactions to two new cosmetic ingredients—alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)—which are widely used in skin creams and body lotions. They are touted as being able to reduce wrinkles and age spots and repair sun-damaged skin. They can cause skin irritation, such as swelling, burning, blistering and itching. Studies of these two acids are ongoing, with results expected later this year. In the meantime, FDA recommends testing these products on a small area of skin first, avoiding the sun, and applying a sunscreen when using them.

In addition, scientists have found a possible link between DEA-related ingredients found in many cosmetics and cancer in laboratory animals. DEA-related substances are found in many products, including soaps, body washes, and bubble baths. FDA is currently studying the evidence to assess the public health risks. However, there is no truth to a claim made in a letter distributed over the Internet reporting that sodium laureth sulphate, a common ingredient used in shampoos and toothpastes, is carcinogenic.

In spite of the possible risks, the good news is that most of us use cosmetics everyday with no adverse affects. With a little caution and careful shopping, that should always be the case.

To ensure safe use of cosmetics, the FDA advises consumers to follow these guidelines:

  • Don't drive and apply makeup. It's easy to seriously injure your eyes if you make a sudden stop or hit a bump.
  • Never share makeup. Use a disposable applicator when sampling testers in the cosmetics department.
  • Never add liquid, especially saliva, to cosmetics. It can cause bacterial growth.
  • Throw away any discolored or bad-smelling cosmetics. It could be a sign that the preservatives have degraded and bacteria is present.
  • Don't use eye makeup when you have an eye infection. Throw out any products that you used at the time of the infection.
  • Keep makeup out of sunlight. Light and heat can degrade preservatives.
  • Keep makeup containers tightly closed when not in use.
  • Don't inhale hairsprays or powders. They can cause lung damage if inhaled regularly.
  • Never use aerosol products while smoking. They can ignite.


FDA's Office of Consumer Affairs
Phone: 1-800-270-8869
Call this number to report adverse reactions to cosmetic products.

Food and Drug Administration

Cosmetic Index: Resources on the Web

Last reviewed February 2000 by HealthGate Medical Review Board

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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