Are You Safe With Your Cosmetics?

ByJamie Cohen

Nov. 18, 2002 -- Mascara and foundation, experts warn, can give you more than mile-long eyelashes and a flawless complexion. Cosmetics can cause irritations, allergies and infections that may, unfortunately, leave you looking less than beautiful.

Is your makeup bag full of products left over from a decade of changing fashion trends? If so, it may be time to get rid of the old, at least for safety's sake.

"Expiration dates for cosmetics are arbitrary and are not based in fact," says Dr. Lisa Donofrio, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

Most have long shelf lives, but past research shows, a little bacteria is present in makeup before we even buy it. When you touch the product with unclean hands or with an unclean applicator or brush, you are adding more bacteria, explains the Food and Drug Administration.

At some point, aging cosmetics lose their ability to kill bacteria no matter how cautious you are when using it. While there are no guidelines for cosmetic use, experts agree that it is a good and safe idea to keep track of how long you have been using products.

"The risk of infection can be reduced if you change them every three to four months," recommends Dr. Robin Ashinoff, chief of dermatologic and laser surgery at New York University.

Another indication that your cosmetics belong in the garbage and not on your face? "Any noticeable changes in texture, color, or smell," says Ashinoff, should be immediate grounds for cosmetic disposal.

Donofrio also says, "Consumers should be wary if a clear cosmetic turns cloudy or if makeup turns oily or begins to separate from its base."

If your cosmetics become thick or clumpy, never attempt to revive the consistency of the makeup with water or saliva. "Both are non-sterile substances that can kill the prophylactic preservatives in cosmetics and act as a breeding ground for bacterial growth," Ashinoff says.

Protect Your Eyes

When prettifying the eyes, use a steady hand. The Food and Drug Administration reports that the most common injury from cosmetics comes from scratching the eye with a mascara wand. Eye scratches, if left untreated, can cause infections which, in turn, can lead to ulcers on the cornea, loss of lashes, or even blindness.

Sleeping while wearing eye makeup can cause problems, too. If mascara flakes into your eyes while you sleep, you run the risk of waking up to itching, bloodshot eyes, and possibly infections or eye scratches. To avoid these dangers, experts recommend that you remove all makeup with water and an oil-based cleanser before going to bed.

Finally, don't use any cosmetics near your eyes unless they are intended specifically for that use. For example, don't substitute a lip-liner for an eye-liner because 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, warns the FDA.

Hypo-Allergenic Cosmetics

Products labeled as "dermatologist-tested," "non-irritating" or "hypo-allergenic" may lead you to believe that these products will be gentler on your skin, but dermatologists say these terms are of little value.

"There is no standard or board to confirm whether a product is hypo-allergenic," says Dr. Bruce Robinson, clinical professor of dermatology at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York.

In reality, "hypo-allergenic means that a product is free from the most common allergens, but many patients can still be allergic to these products," says Donofrio.

Some common allergens present in cosmetics are fragrances and preservatives. These additives can cause red, scaly, itchy, or flaking skin. And, no matter how long you have been using a product, you are never immune to allergies.

"People can develop allergies over time even if they have been using the same product for years," says Robinson.