Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Drugs in cosmetics

By Louise SweeneyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 1981


The saleswoman was young, dewy, and beautiful, with long, honey-colored hair and a carefully made-up face above her white smock. Ten customers were line up at her counter waiting to buy the new cosmetics line that promised to restore the elasticity of youth to their skin.

Skip to next paragraph

If you'd asked any of those women, "Are there drugs in your cosmetics?" they'd have been shocked. In fact, some of them were unknowingly lining up to buy cosmetics that are also drugs or drugs that are also cosmetics.

The saleswoman's next customer, for instance, was interested in a new "skin protection" lotion. The customer was a tall, older woman, with a tweed suit and silver-blond hair. She wanted to know what was in the lotions. The saleswoman assured her that it contained ingredients that would make her skin look younger, smoother, and "keep out pollution."

The woman, reassured, plunked down her money for the product and walked off in blissful ignorance.

What she didn't know was that she had just bought an over-the-counter drug masquerading as a cosmetic, in the perfumed and posh surroundings of her favorite department store. Covert cosmetics, or cosmetics which are actually classified as over-the-counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration, are becoming a fact of life in the $10.6 billion- a-year cosmetics industry in the United STates. The figure for world sales of cosmetics for the last year available, 1978, was $40 billion.

In this case, the "protection" lotion contained what the FCA calls an "active ingredient," industry parlance for a drug which acts as a chemical block against sun, wind or atmosphere. Although the FDA classifies such substances, including sunscreens, as over-the-counter drugs (sold without prescription), consumers may be the last to know it. There is no indication on labels or in ads.

Skin protectants, lipstick which prevent chapping or chafing, lotions which claim to prevent wrinkling, antibacterial deodorant soaps, anti-dandruff shampoos, sunscreens, and anti-cavity toothpastes are among the substances considered over-the-counter drugs by the FDA. But similar products making slightly different claims -- lotins that smooth and beautify, shampoos that wash away dandruff flakes, toothpastes that cleanse but do not claim to fight cavities -- are considered cosmetic by the FDA rather than drugs.

The consumer is caught, puzzled and uninformed, in what sometimes seems like a cosmetics version of the Red Queen's croquet game in "Alice in Wonderland," where rules seem arbitrary, capricious, and perhaps harmful.

Consumers who have been through the chlorophyll rage, though the mink oil, turtle oil, bee pollen, natural fruit, vegetable, and herb cosmetics fashions of the last several years may be unaware of the newest trend. "A Consumer's Guide to Cosmetics," written by Tom Conry and other members of the Science Action Coalition, a nonprofit research group, points it out:

"Recently the industry has taken a different approach and has been glorifying modern technology with ads for 'treatment cosmetics." Couched in scientific-sounding language, the copy promises paramedical benefits if certain 'clinically tested' ingredients are used, or if a skin-care 'system' is followed faithfully. Unfortunately, neither 'nature' nor technology can perform cosmetic miracles. . . ."

The emphasis on treatment is not limited to women consumers, either. Most of the major cosmetics companies also make lotions, colognes, shaving products, etc., for the men's market. Retail sales of men's fragrances, including aftershaves, increased 100 percent from 1972 to 1977, to $368 million, Conry says. The industry expects that figure will double again soon.