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Seven tips for using cosmetics safely

Tips to help you avoid allergic reactions, acne and injuries from cosmetics.

If you've had much face time with cosmetics at the drugstore, you know how daunting making a selection can be. From row after colorful row, which product is right for you?

Whether you're looking to cover gray, lengthen lashes, create a sunless tan or cover up unsightly acne, you'll want to be sure your cosmetics won't harm your eyes or skin. These strategies can help you choose and use these products safely.

1. Read the label.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates cosmetics sold in the United States, encourages manufacturers to test all products for safety and requires clear, truthful product labels. Every label must include information such as ingredients and directions for safe use.

In cosmetics, the most common causes of skin problems are fragrances and preservatives. If fragrances bother you, look for products labeled "fragrance-free" or "without perfume." Those labeled "hypoallergenic" may be less likely to cause reactions, but there's no guarantee. To test for an allergic reaction, dab some of the product on the inside of your elbow.

If you're concerned about acne flare-ups, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends choosing cosmetics labeled "non-comedogenic," which means they are less likely to clog pores.

2. Use as directed.

Not every ingredient that's safe for one part of your body is safe for others. So use each product only for the purpose stated on its label. That means you should apply cosmetics as intended. For example, don't put lipstick, gloss or blush on the eye area. And never apply hair dyes to eyebrows or eyelashes. An allergic reaction could raise the risk of infection and may even cause blindness.

3. Keep things clean and store them safely.

Unclean products could cause eye infections. To prevent bacterial or fungal growth in cosmetics, follow these best practices:

  • Wash your hands before applying eye cosmetics.
  • Don't set mascara wands or eye shadow applicators on unclean surfaces.
  • Never moisten cosmetics with water or saliva. You could introduce bacteria or undermine the product's preservatives.
  • Keep containers closed when not in use, and store them away from sun and heat.

4. Replace products often.

To help avoid eye infections, you may have to replace certain items—such as mascara, eyeliner and eye shadow—before they run out. Manufacturers usually recommend replacing mascara every three months.

"All natural" cosmetics made with plant substances might not contain effective preservatives. Watch them closely; the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery warns that they may be at higher risk for bacterial growth—placing you at higher risk for infection.

You should discard any cosmetic product whose color or odor has changed.

5. Take care when you travel.

Never apply eye makeup in a moving vehicle—including an airplane. Turbulence, sudden stops or bumps in the road could lead to the most common cosmetics-related injury: a scratched eye from a mascara wand.

6. Avoid products that contain kohl.

Kohl is not an FDA-approved color additive for use in U.S. cosmetics because it contains lead salts that could cause health problems. Products that use the word kohl to describe the color, or as the product name, are OK. Just make sure you are not buying a product that contains kohl in the list of ingredients, and watch for other names it goes by, such as al-kahl, kajal or surma.

7. Don't share.

Sharing cosmetics could mean sharing germs, so it's best to use your own products. When you're at a store sampling products, ask for a single-use applicator and make sure the salesperson cleans the container opening with alcohol before giving you a sample.

Reviewed 10/4/2021

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