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5 Things You Should Know About What's In Your Beauty Products

Worried about toxins? You need to read this.


Art Credit: Shannon Lee Miller

Makeup has been getting a bad rap lately. We've heard the argument that it enforces a double standard or that it perpetuates unrealistic beauty ideals. But perhaps the most arresting commentary against cosmetics these days is the idea that cosmetics are subjecting us to innumerable so-called "toxins.” Avoid parabens like the plague, we're told. Beware of carcinogens in your cover-up. How much of this is true, and how much of it is fear-mongering?

As someone who worked more than 30 years in the FDA as director of the agency's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, I may be able to answer some of these questions. For starters, here are five things to know when navigating the debate and making your own informed decisions.

01. We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

Consumers may have good reason to be cautious of cosmetics. They have, after all, been burned (sometimes literally!) before. Seventy-five years ago, cosmetics were sometimes dangerous because we didn’t know as much about safety as we do now. For example, aniline dyes used for coloring eyelashes resulted in injuries, permanent blindness, and, in some cases, death. Koremlu, which contained thallium acetate (also used as rat poison), was a widely marketed depilatory throughout the 1930s, even though it could cause baldness, pain, and paralysis. Because of these and other harmful products and ingredients, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) in 1938, which gave the FDA the authority to act against dangerous cosmetics and the ability to require labels on cosmetic products.

And we know a lot more today about the ingredients we put into makeup—and the skin we apply it to—than we did 75 years ago. In 1938, the skin was viewed as an impenetrable barrier that only served to protect the body from exposure to outside risks. We now know that chemicals can penetrate through the skin and result in possible benefits or risks. All cosmetic companies know this, as does the FDA, and this factor is considered when assessing the safety of cosmetic products and ingredients.

Bottom line: Any cosmetics that are adulterated—i.e. dangerous—are subject to serious regulatory consequences, including straight-up bans and even criminal prosecution. The United States and Europe have external review programs dedicated to assessing the safety of cosmetic ingredients. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review program, for example, reviews available scientific information, determines the conditions of safe use, and publishes the results in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

02. Over- or Under-Regulated?

One of the charges brought against the cosmetic regulatory system in the United States is that it's less rigorous than European systems. That's both true and false. Europe does have a more rigorous system for products that they classify as cosmetics. The European system includes lists of allowed and banned ingredients, requires that companies maintain a safety file that must be made available to authorities upon request, and prescribes the manner in which cosmetics are tested for safety. Europe also bans the use of animals for safety substantiation.

Europe has additional requirements for labeling, manufacturing conditions, consumer information, and more. But many of the products marketed as cosmetics in Europe are regulated as drugs in the United States. Take sunscreens, which are subject to the same requirements as prescription drugs in the United States but are marketed as cosmetics in Europe. Europe also allows “structure and function” claims (claims about how a substance affects your body structure, like "calcium builds strong bones" on a dietary supplement)for products marketed as cosmetics; the United States does not.

Bottom line: Should the U.S. laws and regulations that control cosmetics be changed? Yes! The U.S. laws have not been updated since they were passed by Congress in 1938, and a lot has changed since then. But we need to do so in a thoughtful and appropriate manner. We need regulations that maintain reasonable safeguards while promoting innovation and communication of scientific facts.

03. The Writing’s on the Label

Cosmetics sold today are labeled with all of the information you need to select and safely use the products you want. Perhaps the most important part of the label, but the most difficult to understand, is the ingredient list—required on all products under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). So all foods, drugs, dietary supplements, and cosmetics must be labeled with the ingredients in them. In fact, cosmetics were the first products that required a declaration of all ingredients. In addition, this law means that the same name must be used for all product types—no matter who manufactures it.

Bottom line: Whatever position you take on a given cosmetic ingredient, all the information you need to avoid any product to which you might be allergic—or are just not comfortable with—is right on the label. If you want to better understand what all of those –oxides, iso-, and poly-somethings are up to, check out the FDA’s label guide.

04. To Phthalate or Not to Phthalate

Phthalates, a chemical class that includes many individual substances, are widely used in consumer products, so they've been extensively researched and reviewed. But recently critics have raised concerns about the risks of phthalates in cosmetics. They suspect that phthalates in cosmetics can interfere with hormone production and cause a variety of adverse effects.

The fact is that the phthalates used in cosmetics are very limited and are not among those that have been associated with possible negative health effects. For example, scientists have extensively studied diethyl phthalate, used in fragrances, and found it to be safe in a number of assessments. Dibutyl phthalate is used in nail enamels and is considered safe for this use. The fingernail is relatively impermeable so there is almost no exposure. However, because of the significant negative publicity, most companies have reformulated and substituted other ingredients for phthalates.

Bottom line: The phthalates used in cosmetics, in the amounts used, have not been shown to cause negative side effects. However, if you are concerned about the safety of phthalates, you can make an informed decision by reading the ingredient declaration.

05. We Need Preservatives

One of the most significant public health risks from cosmetics is infection from pathogenic microorganisms, especially if the eyes become infected. Unlike products from the early history of cosmetics, most today are formulated to resist microbial growth—and the key ingredients for this purpose are preservatives. Preservatives help keep products safe over the lifetime of the product under a wide range of use conditions and storage. A key preservative class is the parabens. Cosmetic critics have challenged the safety of parabens and have pushed to have them banned. What’s often not considered is how the loss of these important ingredients could pose significant risk to consumers.

Bottom line: A number of groups have thoroughly assessed parabens. The FDA has concluded that there's no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. Again, if a consumer wants to avoid products containing parabens, the ingredient declaration will provide the relevant information.

The takeaway from all of this? Cosmetics in the United States are safe to use. We have a robust regulatory system that provides you all the information you need to make decisions about the products you choose. No matter how much makeup one prefers to use, one thing's for sure: With the facts at your side, you're all the more free to make the best decisions for yourself—however colorful they may be.