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What is a Cosmetic?

Most of us use cosmetics every day and we “know them when we see them”. However, if I was to ask you whether you thought your toothpaste, suntan lotion, lip balm, mouthwash or anti-dandruff shampoo were cosmetics, I might get a range of opinions.

Cosmetics are substances or products used to enhance or alter the appearance or fragrance of the body. Many cosmetics are designed for use of applying to the face and hair. They are generally mixtures of chemical compounds; some being derived from natural sources (such as coconut oil), and some being synthetics. Common cosmetics include lipstick, mascara, eye shadow, foundation, rouge, skin cleansers and skin lotions, shampoo, hairstyling products (gel, hair spray, etc.), perfume and cologne. Cosmetics applied to the face to enhance its appearance are often called make-up or makeup.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates cosmetics, defines cosmetics as “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 broad definition includes any material intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product. The FDA specifically excludes soap from this category.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines cosmetics as:

Having power to adorn, embellish or beautify (esp. the complexion).

That affect appearance only; superficial; spec., intended merely to improve appearances.

A key point about the OED definition is that cosmetics are superficial rather than therapeutic agents. Cosmetics are not ‘over the counter’ (OTC) or prescription drugs or drug additives, their role is merely to improve your appearance. This seems straight forward until you look at the full range of products that might fit this definition.

  1. soaps and other body cleansing products;
  2. creams, lotions, face masks, powders and colors for the skin, eyes and lips;
  3. shampoos, lotions, oils, waving agents, fixatives, bleaches, dyes and dye removers for the hair;
  4. lotions, polishes and colors for the nails;
  5. hair removers;
  6. skin bleaching and skin tanning preparations;
  7. toothpastes and other oral care preparations;
  8. antiperspirants, deodorants and other personal hygiene products;
  9. perfumes and other aromatic substances

The list above is a testament to the incredible variety of beauty products on the market. However, this boon for consumers is a problem for legislators; concerns about safety and fraudulent advertising claims saw cosmetics becoming increasingly regulated in the twentieth century and this required law makers to legal define them. Unfortunately, regulators in different countries defined cosmetics in different ways. Two examples are given below:

United States: Defines cosmetics as “(1) articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body or any part thereof for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance, and (2) articles intended for use as a component of any such articles; except that such term shall not include soap”.

European Union: Defines cosmetics as “any substance or preparation intended to be placed in contact with the various external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance and/or correcting body odors and/or protecting them or keeping them in good condition”.

Definitions are important as they draw a legal line between cosmetics and drugs, determine labelling requirements and other product standards, and proscribe the types of claims manufacturers can make for their products. This distinction is being blurred by a group of products often referred to as ‘cosmeceuticals’; however, this term has no legal definition and is not recognised in any current regulations.

The definition differences between jurisdictions:

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