Cosmetics

What are cosmetics? How are they different from over-the-counter (OTC) drugs?

Cosmetics are products people use to cleanse or change the look of the face or body.

Cosmetic products include:

Unlike drugs, which are used to treat or prevent disease in the body, cosmetics do not change or affect the body's structure or functions.

What's in cosmetics?

Fragrances and preservatives are the main ingredients in cosmetics. Fragrances are the most common cause of skin problems. More than 5,000 different kinds are used in products. Products marked “fragrance-free” or “without perfume” means that no fragrances have been added to make the product smell good.

Preservatives in cosmetics are the second most common cause of skin problems. They prevent bacteria and fungus from growing in the product and protect products from damage caused by air or light. But preservatives can also cause the skin to become irritated and infected. Some examples of preservatives are:

  • Paraben
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Quaternium-15
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Formaldehyde

The ingredients below cannot be used, or their use is limited, in cosmetics. They may cause cancer or other serious health problems.

  • Bithionol
  • Mercury compounds
  • Vinyl chloride
  • Halogenated salicyanilides
  • Zirconium complexes in aerosol sprays
  • Chloroform
  • Methylene chloride
  • Chlorof luorocarbon propellants
  • Hexachlorophene

What is the role of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

A cosmetic maker can sell products without FDA approval. FDA does not review or approve cosmetics, or their ingredients, before they are sold to the public. But FDA urges cosmetic makers to do whatever tests are needed to prove their products are safe. Cosmetics makers must put a warning statement on the front labels of products that have not been safety testing, which reads, “WARNING - The safety of this product has not been determined.”

Are cosmetics safe?

Yes, for the most part. Serious problems from cosmetics are rare. But sometimes problems can happen.

The most common injury from cosmetics is from scratching the eye with a mascara wand. Eye infections can result if the scratches go untreated. These infections can lead to ulcers on the cornea (clear covering of the eye), loss of lashes, or even blindness. To play it safe, never try to apply mascara while riding in a car, bus, train, or plane.

Sharing make-up can also lead to serious problems. Cosmetic brushes and sponges pick up bacteria from the skin. And if you moisten brushes with saliva, the problem can be worse. Washing your hands before using make-up will help prevent this problem.

Sleeping while wearing eye make-up can cause problems too. If mascara flakes into your eyes while you sleep, you might wake up with itching, bloodshot eyes, infections, or eye scratches. So be sure to remove all make-up before going to bed.

Cosmetic products that come in aerosol containers also can be a hazard. For example, it is dangerous to use aerosol hairspray near heat, fire, or while smoking. Until hairspray is fully dry, it can catch on fire and cause serious burns. Fires related to hairsprays have caused injuries and death. Aerosol sprays or powders also can cause lung damage if they are deeply inhaled into the lungs.

How can I protect myself against the dangers of cosmetics?

  • Never drive and put on make-up. Not only does this make driving a danger, hitting a bump in the road and scratching your eyeball can cause serious eye injury.
  • Never share make-up. Always use a new sponge when trying products at a store. Insist that salespersons clean container openings with alcohol before applying to your skin.
  • Keep make-up containers closed tight when not in use.
  • Keep make-up out of the sun and heat. Light and heat can kill the preservatives that help to fight bacteria. Don't keep cosmetics in a hot car for a long time.
  • Don't use cosmetics if you have an eye infection, such as pinkeye. Throw away any make-up you were using when you first found the problem.
  • Never add liquid to a product unless the label tells you to do so.
  • Throw away any make-up if the color changes, or it starts to smell.
  • Never use aerosol sprays near heat or while smoking, because they can catch on fire.
  • Don't deeply inhale hairsprays or powders. This can cause lung damage.
  • Avoid color additives that are not approved for use in the eye area, such as "permanent" eyelash tints and kohl (color additive that contains lead salts and is still used in eye cosmetics in other countries). Be sure to keep kohl away from children. It may cause lead poisoning.

Read more of this great fact sheet on cosmetics and your health.

Woman washing her face

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