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Eye Cosmetic Safety

Most eye cosmetics are safe when used properly. However, it’s important to be careful about the risk of infection, injury from the applicator, and use of unapproved color additives.

Keep it clean!

Eye cosmetics are usually safe when you buy them, but misusing them can allow dangerous bacteria or fungi to grow in them. Then, when applied to the eye area, a cosmetic can cause an infection. In rare cases, women have been temporarily or permanently blinded by an infection from an eye cosmetic. See the Safety Checklist below for tips on keeping your eye cosmetics clean and protecting against infections.

Occasionally, contamination can be a problem for some eye cosmetics even when they are new. FDA has an Import Alert in effect for cosmetics -- including eye cosmetics -- contaminated with harmful microorganisms.

Don't share! Don't swap!

Don't share or swap eye cosmetics -- not even with your best friend. Another person's germs may be hazardous to you. The risk of contamination may be even greater with "testers" at retail stores, where a number of people are using the same sample product. If you feel you must sample cosmetics at a store, make sure they are applied with single-use applicators, such as clean cotton swabs.

Hold still!

It may seem like efficient use of your time to apply makeup in the car or on the bus, but resist that temptation, even if you're not in the driver's seat. If you hit a bump, come to a sudden stop, or are hit by another vehicle, you risk injuring your eye (scratching your cornea, for example) with a mascara wand or other applicator. Even a slight scratch can result in a serious infection.

What's in it?

As with any cosmetic product sold on a retail basis to consumers, eye cosmetics are required to have an ingredient declaration on the label, according to regulations implemented under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, or FPLA -- an important consumer protection law. If you wish to avoid certain ingredients or compare the ingredients in different brands, you can check the ingredient declaration.

If a cosmetic sold on a retail basis to consumers does not have an ingredient declaration, it is considered misbranded and is illegal in interstate commerce. Very small packages in tightly compartmented display racks may have copies of the ingredient declaration available on tear-off sheets accompanying the display. If neither the package nor the display rack provides the ingredient declaration, you aren't getting the information you're entitled to. Don't hesitate to ask the store manager or the manufacturer why not.

What's that shade you're wearing?

In the United States, the use of color additives is strictly regulated. A number of color additives approved for cosmetic use in general are not approved for use in the area of the eye. An import alert for cosmetics containing illegal colors lists several eye cosmetics.

Keep away from kohl -- and keep kohl away from kids!

One color additive of particular concern is kohl. Also known as al-kahl, kajal, or surma, kohl is used in some parts of the world to enhance the appearance of the eyes, but is unapproved for cosmetic use in the United States. Kohl consists of salts of heavy metals, such as antimony and lead. It may be tempting to think that because kohl has been used traditionally as an eye cosmetic in some parts of the world, it must be safe. However, there have been reports linking the use of kohl to lead poisoning in children.*

An FDA Import Alert cites three main reasons for detaining imports of kohl:

  1. For containing an unsafe color additive, which makes the product adulterated.
  2. For labeling that describes the product falsely as "FDA Approved."
  3. For lack of an ingredient declaration.

Some eye cosmetics may be labeled with the word "kohl" only to indicate the shade, not because they contain true kohl. If the product is properly labeled, you can check to see whether the color additives declared on the label are in FDA's list of color additives approved for use in cosmetics, then make sure they are listed as approved for use in the area of the eye.

Dying to dye your eyelashes?

Permanent eyelash and eyebrow tints and dyes have been known to cause serious eye injuries, including blindness. The FDA has provided for the safe use of silver nitrate as a color additive, in professional-use only cosmetics, to color eyebrows and eyelashes [21 CFR 73.2550]. Use is restricted to up to 4 percent silver nitrate (by weight) in a viscous gel product. These silver nitrate containing cosmetic products are not intended for use on persons under the age of 16 or for application for longer than 1 minute. Furthermore, these products are not for distribution or direct sale to consumers. FDA has an Import Alert in effect for eyelash and eyebrow dyes containing coal tar colors.

Thinking of false eyelashes or extensions?

FDA considers false eyelashes, eyelash extensions, and their adhesives to be cosmetic products, and as such they must adhere to the safety and labeling requirements for cosmetics. False eyelashes and eyelash extensions require adhesives to hold them in place. Remember that the eyelids are delicate, and an allergic reaction, irritation, or other injury in the eye area can be particularly troublesome. Check the ingredients before using these adhesives.

Bad Reaction?

If you have a bad reaction to eye cosmetics, first contact your healthcare provider. FDA also encourages consumers to report any adverse reactions to cosmetics. See Bad Reaction to Cosmetics? Tell FDA and How to Report a Cosmetic Related Complaint.

Safety Checklist

If you use eye cosmetics, FDA urges you to follow these safety tips:

  • If any eye cosmetic causes irritation, stop using it immediately. If irritation persists, see a doctor.
  • Avoid using eye cosmetics if you have an eye infection or the skin around the eye is inflamed. Wait until the area is healed. Discard any eye cosmetics you were using when you got the infection.
  • Be aware that there are bacteria on your hands that, if placed in the eye, could cause infections. Wash your hands before applying eye cosmetics.
  • Make sure that any instrument you place in the eye area is clean.
  • Don't share your cosmetics. Another person's bacteria may be hazardous to you.
  • Don't allow cosmetics to become covered with dust or contaminated with dirt or soil. Keep containers clean.
  • Don't use old containers of eye cosmetics. Manufacturers usually recommend discarding mascara two to four months after purchase.
  • Discard dried-up mascara. Don't add saliva or water to moisten it. The bacteria from your mouth may grow in the mascara and cause infection. Adding water may introduce bacteria and will dilute the preservative that is intended to protect against microbial growth.
  • Don't store cosmetics at temperatures above 85 degrees F. Cosmetics held for long periods in hot cars, for example, are more susceptible to deterioration of the preservative.
  • When applying or removing eye cosmetics, be careful not to scratch the eyeball or other sensitive area. Never apply or remove eye cosmetics in a moving vehicle.
  • Don't use any cosmetics near your eyes unless they are intended specifically for that use. For instance, don't use a lip liner as an eye liner. You may be exposing your eyes to contamination from your mouth, or to color additives that are not approved for use in the area of the eye.
  • Avoid color additives that are not approved for use in the area of the eye, such as "permanent" eyelash tints and kohl. Be especially careful to keep kohl away from children, since reports have linked it to lead poisoning.

August 1, 2001; Updated December 18, 2006

The August 1, 2001 version of this document is available بالعربية (Arabic PDF - 1.1MB).

 Al-Ashban RM, Aslam M, Shah AH. Kohl (surma): A toxic traditional eye cosmetic study in Saudi Arabia. Public Health. 2004 Jun; 118(4):292-8

Al-Saleh I, Nester M, DeVol E, Shinwari N, Al-Shahria S: "Determinants of blood lead levels in Saudi Arabian schoolgirls." International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 1999 April-June, 5(2):107-14.

Mojdehi GM, Gurtner J: "Childhood lead poisoning through kohl." American Journal of Public Health, 1996 April, 86 (4):587-8.

Al-Hazzaa SA, Krahn PM: "Kohl: A hazardous eyeliner." International Ophthalmology, 1995; 19(2):83-8.

Alkhawajah AM: "Alkohl use in Saudi Arabia: Extent of use and possible lead toxicity." Tropical Geographical Medicine, 1992 October, 44(4):373-7.

Hardy AD, Walton RI, Myers KA, Vaishnav R. Availability and chemical composition of traditional eye cosmetics ("kohls") used in the United Arab Emirates of Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Quwain, Ras Al-Khaimah, and Fujairah. J Cosmet Sci. 2006 Mar-Apr; 57(2):107-25.

Jallad KN, Hedderich HG. Characterization of a hazardous eyeliner (kohl) by confocal Raman microscopy. J Hazard Mater. 2005 Sep 30; 124(1-3):236-40.

Nir A, Tamir A, Zelnik N, Iancu TC: "Is eye cosmetic a source of lead poisoning?" Israel Journal of Medical Science, 1992 July; 28(7):417-21.

Parry C, Eaton J: Kohl: "A lead-hazardous eye makeup from the Third World to the First World." Environmental Health Perspectives, 1991 Aug; 94:121-3.

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