Clearing Up Cosmetic Confusion

by Carol Lewis, FDA Consumer Magazine, 2000

Cosmetics run the gamut from eye shadow to deodorant sprays. And consumers' concerns and questions are just as varied as the products themselves.

"Consumers are so confused by the products out there because they all do so many different things," says Lynn Reniers, a licensed cosmetologist with Elizabeth Arden. "So it's important to send them away with a very clear understanding of product usage."

When FDA surveyed 1,687 consumers ages 14 and older in 1994 about their use of cosmetics, many of the responses pertained to consumer perceptions about cosmetic labeling claims. For example, many said they expect a product to prevent or slow the formation of wrinkles if it makes such a claim on its packaging. And nearly half of those surveyed felt that a product claiming to be "natural" should contain all natural ingredients. But do these products live up to their labeling claims?

Not necessarily. John Bailey, Ph.D., director of FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, says, "Image is what the cosmetics industry sells through its products, and it's up to the consumer to believe the claims or not."

Behind the image, however, are real products, and consumers want to know what works and what doesn't.

An understanding of FDA's cosmetic responsibilities can help consumers make wise, rational decisions about the cosmetics they buy.

Regulatory Authority

The regulatory requirements governing the sale of cosmetics are not as stringent as those that apply to other FDA-regulated products. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act, cosmetics and their ingredients are not required to undergo approval before they are sold to the public. Generally, FDA regulates these products after they have been released to the marketplace. This means that manufacturers may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances, to market a product without a government review or approval.

But some regulations do apply to cosmetics. In addition to the FD&C Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires an ingredient declaration on every cosmetic product offered for sale to consumers. In addition, these regulations require that ingredients be listed in descending order of quantity. Water, for example, accounts for the bulk of most skin-care products, which is why it usually appears first on these products.

Although companies are not required to substantiate performance claims or conduct safety testing, if safety has not been substantiated, the product's label must read "WARNING: The safety of this product has not been determined."

"Consumers believe that 'if it's on the market, it can't hurt me,'" says Bailey. "And this belief is sometimes wrong."

FDA's challenge comes in proving that a product is harmful under conditions of use or that it is improperly labeled. Only then can the agency take action to remove adulterated or misbranded products from the marketplace.

The Fine Line Between Cosmetics and Drugs

The 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 definition includes skin-care creams, lotions, powders and sprays, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup, permanent waves, hair colors, deodorants, baby products, bath oils, bubble baths, and mouthwashes, as well as any material intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product.

Products that intend to treat or prevent disease, or otherwise affect structure or function of the human body are considered drugs. Cosmetics that make therapeutic claims are regulated as drugs and cosmetics, and must meet the labeling requirements for both. A good way to tell if you're buying a cosmetic that is also regulated as a drug is to see if the first ingredient listed is an "active ingredient." The active ingredient is the chemical that makes the product effective, and the manufacturer must have proof that it's safe for its intended use. For products that are both drugs and cosmetics, the regulations require that active ingredients be listed first on these products, followed by the list of cosmetic ingredients in order of decreasing predominance.

Examples of products that are both cosmetics and drugs are dandruff shampoos, fluoride toothpastes that fight tooth decay, antiperspirants/deodorants, and sunblocking/tanning preparations, including foundations that contain sunscreens.

Before products with both a cosmetic and drug classification can be marketed, they must be scientifically proven safe and effective for their therapeutic claims. If they are not, FDA considers them to be misbranded and can take regulatory action.

Reading Is Believing

The ingredient list on a cosmetic container is the only place where a consumer can readily find out the truth about what he or she is buying. Consumers can check the listing to identify substances they wish to avoid. And becoming familiar with what cosmetics contain can help counter some of the alluring appeal showcased elsewhere on the product.

"Our best friend is the ingredient label," says beauty consultant and 14-year veteran consumer reporter Paula Begoun. "And spending the time to read it may be all that is needed to protect ourselves from hurting our skin."

But the ingredient list, although a mandatory requirement on cosmetics, is also the most difficult part of the label to understand. Bailey admits that most of us don't recognize the names of the ingredients listed because there are thousands available to chemists creating a wide variety of products. But there's no way to change that, he says, and still accurately identify the substances that are used.

Consumers can, however, obtain specific information about a cosmetic ingredient in various references, such as the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and Handbook, published by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, available at most public libraries or at the Office of the Federal Register, 1100 L St., N.W., Washington, DC 20408. FDA recognizes the association as a reliable source of substances that have been identified as cosmetic ingredients, as well as their definitions and trade names.

Cosmetic ingredient declaration regulations apply only to retail products intended for home use. Cosmetic samples and products used exclusively by beauticians in salons and labeled "For Professional Use Only" are not required to include the ingredient declaration. However, these products must state the distributor, list the content's quantity, and include all necessary warning statements.

They Can Be Irritating

Almost all cosmetics can cause allergic reactions in certain individuals. Often the first sign of a reaction is a mild redness and irritation. There is no list of ingredients that can be guaranteed not to cause allergic reactions, so consumers who are prone to allergies should pay careful attention to what they use on their skin.

Nearly one-quarter of the people questioned in FDA's 1994 cosmetics survey responded "yes" to having suffered an allergic reaction to personal care products, including moisturizers, foundations, and eye shadows.

"Because of the almost limitless combinations in all sorts of mixtures and formulations, it is virtually impossible to know if, when, or how anyone's skin will react to any cosmetic," Begoun says. She advises consumers to "buy with a healthy dose of skepticism," and to stop using an offending product and return it to the place of purchase. "Returning the product gives the cosmetics company essential information about how these formulas are working."

What Lies Behind the Meaning

FDA has tried to establish official definitions for the use of certain terms such as "natural" and "hypoallergenic," but its regulations were overturned in court. So companies can use them on cosmetic labels to mean anything or nothing at all. Most of the terms have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers, but dermatologists say they have very little medical meaning.

Some of the more common terms that consumers should be aware of include:

The list of ingredients, once again, can help consumers determine if there is any significant difference between products labeled similar to the above, and competing brands that don't make these claims.

Since the cosmetics industry often produces new, reworked versions of old ingredients, a wise consumer will take the time to read the labels to know what's in a product and how to use it safely. After all, consumers are likely to try other products with the same recognizable names. Once you have all the information, you can begin to make your own decisions about what products work best for you.

"There is really very little that's new under the sun," Bailey concludes, "and that certainly applies to cosmetics."

Carol Lewis is on assignment with FDA's Office of Public Affairs.

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