Neon eye makeup is back in a big way and tons of brands are offering their own take on the trend. But you might have been surprised to see an ironic safety disclaimer on some shades in your brand new neon eyeshadow palette: “Not intended for use in the immediate eye area.”
I’m sorry, what? These sure look like eyeshadow palettes, so what gives? How can a product like that be anything but “eye-safe?” And, on that note, how can you make sure that you’re using safe eye makeup? We talked to experts to figure this out.
Here’s how to know if your eye makeup contains non-eye-safe ingredients.
Really any color cosmetic product could contain an ingredient that isn’t approved for use around the eyes. So, why are you just now hearing about this? The issue of safe eye makeup made headlines earlier this year when neon shades showed up on runways. Next thing we knew, everyone was excited about super-bright palettes and eyeliners, and that’s when they noticed the disclaimer. But you may have also noticed this language on Halloween makeup or face paints, which also tend to be bright and highly pigmented.
So, how can you know for sure if your bright new palette is safe for use around your eyes? The FDA encourages consumers to check the ingredients list of products they’re planning to use on their eyes against the agency’s list of approved color pigments, which also lists the exact uses they’re approved for.
“If there’s a color in your makeup that isn’t on this list, the company that made it is not obeying the law. Don’t use it,” the FDA says. “Even if it’s on the list, check to see if it has FDA’s OK for use near the eyes. If it doesn’t, keep it away from your eyes.”
This is actually one aspect of cosmetics regulation that the FDA takes very seriously, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Chemist Confessions, tells SELF via email. “The FDA actually has pretty strict regulation on color additives,” she says. “Only certain pigments can be used for eyes, [and] there are quite a few cases of foreign goods rejected for import on the basis of using non-approved pigments.”
There are two main FDA classifications for color additives in cosmetics: They’re either approved for use in “cosmetics generally” (which includes everything outside of the eye area and oral applications) or “external application” (which also excludes eye area application but, confusingly, does include some oral hygiene products like mouthwash and toothpaste). Remember, neither of these categories includes the eye area; the FDA classification has to explicitly mention that an ingredient is safe for use on or around the eyes or, technically, it’s not safe for that use. And the product will likely end up with a disclaimer reading something like, “Not intended for use in the immediate eye area.”
Skimming the FDA’s data on cosmetic color additives quickly reveals that super-bright pigments (often listed as D&C and FD&C dyes) have more restrictions on them and are less likely to be likely to be eye-safe than ingredients like talc or mica. Generally, that’s because the brighter and more neon a cosmetic is, the less likely it is to get its color from eye-safe pigments alone.
Why are those pigments more likely to get the “not for eyes” disclaimers? “Usually it means that the pigments underwent safety testing and [were] not approved for eye area use,” Gloria Lu, cosmetic chemist and Chemist Confessions co-founder, tells SELF.
What does it mean if an ingredient isn’t eye-safe?
If a product has a “not for eye” disclaimer that means it contains an ingredient that, for whatever reason, the FDA concluded shouldn’t be used around the eyes. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, the general public doesn’t know why that happened—just that it did.
Sometimes, the reason is something relatively superficial, like a temporary staining of the skin. For example, “very few red pigments are actually approved for eye area use [because] they can cause staining,” Fu says.
But more commonly it’s because the ingredient is associated with skin irritation. In fact, the FDA also specifically calls out that unapproved ingredients in eye makeup may cause allergic reactions or irritation in the area, like itching, swelling, and rashes.
If a product has that disclaimer, that’s not a guarantee that you’ll have a bad reaction to it, but it does mean that the FDA wants you to beware and, probably, avoid it.
But here’s the thing: Basically any ingredient can cause a bad reaction.
If you’re going to have a bad reaction to eye makeup, it’s most likely to be something irritant or allergic contact dermatitis—and there’s no way to predict which ingredients will trigger them, John G. Zampella, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF.
And, because the skin around your eyes is extremely sensitive, the FDA is especially strict about pigments and other ingredients that are intended for use in that area. “Your eyelid skin is the thinnest skin on your body, outside of maybe your genitals,” Dr. Zampella explains. That means that irritating makeup and skin-care products can penetrate it more easily and, therefore, it’s more sensitive to irritants and allergens than skin on most other parts of your body.
But people don’t put makeup exclusively on their eyelids—and that’s where things get really hazardous, Lora Glass, M.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology and director of Medical Student Education in ophthalmology at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF.
The rims of your eyelids (the part that frames your eyeballs) are what Dr. Glass calls a “grey zone” because they’re made up of both epithelial skin (which is protected by a hardened layer of dead skin cells) and mucosal skin, which has no barrier at all. “As you transition from the front to the back of the margin [or rim] of your eye, [the skin] transitions from epithelial to mucosal,” she says.
Whether or not you intentionally apply eyeliner, eyeshadow, or mascara to the rims of your eyes, any product that ends up there has a better chance of being absorbed into the skin, and potentially causing irritation, than just about anywhere else on your body.
Should you avoid using anything that isn’t approved to be used around the eyes?
Honestly, it’s your call. If you see a label saying that a product isn’t intended for use in the eye area, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get rid of it. It means that the FDA has decided it’s more likely to cause a bad reaction in the eye area, which could be something like staining the skin or that it contains an ingredient that could be irritating. That might be especially important to pay attention to if you have sensitive skin or eyes or you already know that you’re prone to bad reactions to cosmetics. But remember that just because a product contain only eye-safe ingredients doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed not to have a reaction.
It’s tempting to conclude that eye-safe products are less likely to cause an adverse reaction, but it’s not quite that simple. The vast majority of people won’t have any issues with eye makeup of any kind. But allergies and sensitivities are so individualized that basically anything—including eye-safe ingredients—can cause a problem. And if you have sensitive skin or eyes, you probably already know to be careful using any new makeup, regardless of whether or not it’s considered eye-safe.
Ultimately, whether or not an ingredient is FDA approved for use around the eyes isn’t the only thing—or even the most important thing—to pay attention to. It’s far more important to pay attention to your skin when using anything new and, if you’re prone to bad reactions, to use new products with care.
A one-off allergic or irritant reaction may be extremely unpleasant, but it isn’t usually dangerous in the long-term. That may come with symptoms like redness, swelling, itching, dryness, crusting, or peeling. In that case, it’s a good idea to see a dermatologist to help figure out the ingredient causing the issue. “[We] try to find the compound that you’re allergic to and eliminate it,” Dr. Zampella says. “[But] it’s not going to kill you.”
On the other hand, repeated, persistent exposure to irritants or allergens can be a bigger issue. This kind of sustained inflammation puts you at risk for injury and infection in the area, but it can also change the appearance of your skin, Dr. Glass says. “Any inflammation on the eyelid—or anywhere on your body—can hyper- or hypo-pigment the skin, depending on your skin type,” she says. In other words, if your eyes are pleading with you to stop using a product, listen to them.
The reality is that your risk of a reaction comes down to your skin and the products you use. Disclaimers aside, most people can use even the brightest neon eyeshadows with no problem. But if a new product makes your eyelids itchy, red, puffy, scaly, or peel-y, remove it immediately and never use it again—no matter how bright and trendy it is.
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