Shopping for Cosmetics? What You Need to Know

Shopping for Cosmetics? What You Need to Know

January 06, 2023

By Megan Boyle

We rely on the federal government to establish safety standards for everything from automobiles to elevators to the food we buy at the supermarket.

But what about cosmetics like shampoo, body wash, lotion and lipstick? The safety standards are not as protective as you might think.

Here’s a look at the two main federal laws regulating the everyday cosmetics products you and your family use – and why they’re insufficient:

  1. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act

Passed by Congress in 1938, this is the principal law governing how the Food and Drug Administration oversees the safety of food, drugs and cosmetics. Although its provisions are comparatively robust and sweeping when it comes to food and drugs, they fall far short for cosmetics.

When the law was passed, the cosmetics industry was still in its infancy. Today there are tens of thousands of products that generate billions in annual revenue. But despite this growth and consumers’ pervasive use of cosmetics, the provisions governing personal care products have changed very little in the last eight decades.

What you should know:

The law does prohibit promotion and sale of “adulterated” or “misbranded” cosmetics, but the government does no safety testing of products or their ingredients, nor does it approve new products before they’re available to consumers.

In contrast with the European Union, which has banned or restricted numerous cosmetics ingredients, the FDA currently bans only 10. An industry-funded group called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel lists another 12 ingredients as “unsafe,” but some are still in use.

Moreover, cosmetics companies are not required to share their safety information with the FDA. Most safety requirements are voluntarily set by the industry, and enforcement is largely left up to the companies themselves.

  1. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act

Enacted in 1967, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires cosmetics companies to provide some information to consumers. It requires that all “consumer commodities” feature a clear label that identifies the product, lists the manufacturer and discloses the content or ingredients – but with important exceptions.

What you should know:

Although the act requires companies to label product ingredients, it allows them to withhold any information that it considers proprietary as a “trade secret” – such as the composition of fragrance.

As a result, the FDA allows companies to list “fragrance” on a label but none of the many individual chemicals that go into it. One lotion may smell like roses and another like oranges, but the label for each reads “fragrance” just the same.

At the end of the day, neither the FDA – nor you, the consumer – knows the total number of ingredients in a cosmetic.

Want to know more? Visit FDA Authority Over Cosmetics.

New legislation on the horizon

In an effort to strengthen these weak safety and disclosure requirements, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, have introduced a bill to better protect consumers, but it’s a long way from becoming law – if it ever does.

Learn more about the Personal Care Products Safety Act.

In the meantime, how you can help protect yourself:

EWG’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database provides information about more than 70,000 personal care products. Visit the website or download the app to help make smarter choices for your family.