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How Safe Are Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

You may be choosy about your moisturizer, hair color product, and makeup brand—but how much time do you spend checking out the safety of those products?

Cosmetics and personal care items include foundation and mascara, face and body lotion, soaps and shampoos, hair styling products, deodorant, toothpaste, hair dyes, and nail polish. They are considered safe. But that doesn't mean that there aren't risks linked to their use, particularly if you don't use them correctly.

Safety concerns

Some of the safety concerns that may be linked to cosmetics and personal care products include:

  • Eye infections

  • Spreading bacteria on the skin

  • Irritation and scratches on the eye

  • Fire hazards, in the case of aerosol products such as hairspray

  • Allergic reactions or sensitivity to ingredients

  • Contaminants in products not made in the U.S.

Using your cosmetics and personal care products correctly can help reduce many risks. These include washing off cosmetics before you go to sleep. And not sharing any personal products to prevent the spread of bacteria.

Safety testing

The FDA works to ensure that cosmetic companies follow regulations to keep cosmetics and personal care products as safe as possible. But although the FDA recommends that cosmetic manufacturers test their products, they aren’t required to do so. You can tell what's been tested by looking for a product label that says: “WARNING - The safety of this product has not been determined.” If a product hasn't been tested for safety, it must display that labeling.

You may also see labels that say external D&C, D&C, or FD&C, followed by the name of a color. For instance, you might see this on a label: D&C Red No. 36. These are color additives. External D&C is only approved for use in cosmetics and in medicines that are applied to the skin. D&C color is only approved for use in medicines and cosmetics. But FD&C color is approved for use in foods, medicines, and cosmetics.

Two commonly used chemicals that have been studied for safety issues are parabens and phthalates. Parabens are preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria and mold in personal care products and cosmetics. One study suggested a possible link between parabens and breast cancer. But other studies have not reached the same conclusion. The levels of parabens used in personal care products today are considered safe. But parabens (and other ingredients) may cause irritation or an allergic reaction in some people.

Phthalates are used to enhance the formulas of a range of cosmetics and personal care products, from shampoo to hair spray to nail polish. They may be used as solvents and perfume fixatives. They are also used to help prevent stiffness in hair spray and reduce cracking in nail polish. Phthalates are still being researched to determine their safety.

The FDA’s role

The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go to market. But there are laws and regulations that apply to cosmetics on the market in interstate commerce. Color additives and dyes found in hair dye and cosmetics must be approved by the FDA. The FDA also regulates (but does not require FDA approval on) personal care products that are categorized as medical devices, such as hair remover gadgets, dietary supplements, and consumer products like nail care tools.

The FDA doesn't require FDA approval for non-medical cosmetics and personal care products. But the agency regulates and can take legal action against companies that don’t follow safety regulations when making these types of products. Companies must make sure that their products are safe before they can be sold.

The FDA can't actually approve most ingredients in cosmetics. So personal care products can't be labeled or marketed as "FDA-approved." But they are still FDA regulated for safety.