Can You Trust The Beauty Industry? Are Safe Cosmetics A Myth?

Cosmetics CounterDo you think that the beauty and personal care products on the shelves at your local drugstore or department store are safe? Do you think they are tested for safety by an independent agency before they are marketed?

If you think the answer is yes, you’re not alone. Most of us believe that the products we buy are safe, and that they are rigorously tested to address safety concerns before they are placed on store shelves. Various national surveys have found that a majority of us agree with statements such as “currently, the government carefully tests chemicals used in all major consumer products to make sure they are safe for people to use.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t true.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for cosmetics, as well as other products such as prescription medications. But, the FDA’s authority over cosmetics is relatively limited. As explained on the FDA’s website, “FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency, such as drugs, biologics, and medical devices.”

Importantly, except for color additives, the FDA does not approve cosmetics ingredients before they are placed on the market. In fact, the FDA explains that “[i]n general, except for color additives and those ingredients which are prohibited or restricted from use in cosmetics by regulation, a manufacturer may use any ingredient in the formulation of a cosmetic provided that the ingredient and the finished cosmetic are safe, the product is properly labeled, and the use of the ingredient does not otherwise cause the cosmetic to be adulterated or misbranded under the laws that FDA enforces.” The list of prohibited or restricted ingredients is amazingly short. The FDA has banned 9 ingredients, and restricts certain color additives. In comparison, the European Union list of prohibited or restricted chemicals is over 1,100 chemicals (although some of the chemicals would never be found in cosmetics).

Who determines whether a cosmetic is safe? As explained on the FDA’s website, “[c]osmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing,” and not the FDA. That’s right – not the FDA. In other words, no independent agency determines whether a product is safe.

And what is safe? The FDA doesn’t even define the criteria. While the regulations provide that each ingredient must be adequately substantiated for safety prior to marketing, the FDA doesn’t provide clear guidance as to the meaning of “adequately substantiated” or “safety” for cosmetics. If cosmetic companies don’t adequately substantiate a cosmetic product’s safety before marketing it, they are required to include on the label the following statement: “Warning – The safety of this product has not been determined.” But if there are no definitions or guidance, how does a company even determine whether a product complies? In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) states that it reviewed more than 20,000 cosmetic product labels and did not find a single one with the statement. In my limited personal review, I’ve never seen such a statement either.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that cosmetics are inherently unsafe. But, the EWG asserts that approximately 89% of the ingredients routinely used in cosmetics have not been assessed by the FDA or the industry. And, according to the EWG, 98% of all personal care products contain one or more ingredients never publicly assessed for safety.

I don’t think that this is what most of us expect. We expect the ingredients in the products we slather on our bodies and paint on our eyes and lips to be safe. But it doesn’t seem like we really know. And if you take the time to look up the ingredients listed on those cosmetics we buy, you find out that cosmetics routinely contain ingredients that are hormone disruptors, cancer-causing, or reproductive toxicants. Almost universally, conventional cosmetics contain fragrance (or parfum). Fragrance almost always contains phthalates to sustain the fragrance and help it adsorb into the skin–and phthalates are hormone disruptors.

Who reviews cosmetics ingredients? The companies may privately conduct their own assessments. The cosmetics industry also relies upon the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR). The CIR was created by the cosmetic industry trade group to police the industry. The CIR is funded by the member companies of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association and its recommendations regarding safety are just that, recommendations, not requirements, and can be ignored. Also, the CIR’s focus is whether a cosmetic ingredient causes irritation or allergic reactions, not carcinogenicity or reproductive or developmental toxicity.

There are several ingredients that most environmental health advocates will recommend you avoid. I’ll be posting those soon. In the meantime, if you are concerned about the ingredients in beauty products, you can check out the EWG’s cosmetic database Skin Deep. When shopping, you can look up companies that have signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetic pledge.

Original 5 MInutes for Going Green post. Jennifer has more great information on going non-toxic and green at her personal blog, The Smart Mama.

9 Responses to Can You Trust The Beauty Industry? Are Safe Cosmetics A Myth?
  1. Renee
    September 30, 2008 | 7:22 am

    Wow this is disturbing I taught that cause they are tested they should be safe!

    I’m glad I don’t use any cosmetic mu husband is against it! He said that is I was ugly he might consider my using some but he like me without it!

  2. Danielle
    September 30, 2008 | 10:01 am

    I have extremely sensitive skin and I use AMM, they are resisted with Safe Cosmetics as mentioned above. They are an eco-friendly company and also registered with PETA.

  3. Lisa
    September 30, 2008 | 11:14 am

    Glad you posted Skin Deep on here. That is an awesome site. I have switch all my products to ones that are either organic (cert.) or at least safe cosmetic signers. I also read labels like crazy.

    The makeup I use which is very good is

  4. Donielle @ Naturally Knocked Up
    October 2, 2008 | 3:48 pm

    I found this fact disturbing when I first heard about it earlier this year. The fact that our skin is our largest organ and also ABSORBS things, really scared me. For that reason alone, I’ve switched over to the oil cleansing method (OCM) to which I have actually written a post about and is scheduled to be published tomorrow @

    Using healthy products on my skin is a necessity for me. It’s not only healthier for my actual skin, but for my entire body as well since it doesn’t have to work at fighting off all those toxins!

    Great informative post, thanks!

  5. mommy bee
    October 4, 2008 | 2:26 pm

    One more reason to just give up makeup all together…I haven’t worn any in over two years and can I just say it’s SO freeing to just accept my face the way God made it! Yeah, I do pluck my eyebrows, but that’s it. No makeup, no harsh washing, and the happiest skin of my life. I wash with water in the shower each day, and that’s it.

  6. […] do you figure out what’s safe in beauty and personal care products? I previously posted about how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test cosmetics before they go on the […]

  7. donna
    November 6, 2008 | 7:06 pm

    great job getting word out about safer & greener products.
    my personal favorite alternative is afterglow.
    their makeup is better than any previous brand i’ve used (natural & not).

    this article really sums it up:

    thanks for the awesome post!

  8. Danika Carter
    September 18, 2009 | 10:34 pm

    Good article, but it’s missing one big area. Organic personal care products. Since there is no certification specifically for personal care products to be certified organic products must meet food grade standards.

    Since only agricultural products can be certified organic, the Biological Farmers of Australia has another certification for products that are all natural, but contain items like zinc or clay. Many products say “made with 90% organic ingredients.” But, unless there is a certification similar to BFA, the other 30% can, and usually is, still synthetic chemicals, often with dangerous health effects.

    I’ve started telling people not to look at the front of the bottle for what’s not in the product (no parabens, SLS, etc.). Turn it around and look for what IS in it. That’s much more important. Don’t fall for slick advertizing. Don’t use anything rated above a 2 in the cosmetics database.

  9. […] – the federal agency tasked with jurisdiction over the safety of cosmetics – does NOT review cosmetic products for safety before they are placed on store shelves. In fact, most of the ingredients have never been studied […]