Why We Should Shorten Cosmetic Ingredient Labeling


Editor’s note: In this brief article, industry veteran and Cosmetics & Toiletries (C&T) advisor Karl Laden, Ph.D., comments on cosmetic ingredient labeling some 50 years after his first publication in C&T, and some 60 years after his first ever scientific publication. Years of experience have revealed to him that what consumers think they want, insofar as labeling, may in fact not be what they need.

Recently, several cosmetic companies have expanded their product ingredient disclosures to include fragrance ingredients. I applaud their desire to give consumers more complete information about the products they sell. However, I wonder whether we could better serve consumers by shortening the information required on the ingredient label. I know this is a radical proposal.

While cosmetic ingredient labeling conforms to regulatory requirements, I think there are better ways to fulfill the original objectives intended. The following review of the legislative history of ingredient labeling will demonstrate my point.

In the Beginning

The U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 required ingredient labeling of food and drugs1 but did not require ingredient labeling of cosmetics. This was not an oversight. Since the early 1900s, discussions were held relating to cosmetic ingredient labeling. Even during the drafting of the 1938 act, congressional committee meetings received testimony from groups about the need to label ingredients in cosmetics. The most compelling justification was the need to provide information to the allergic consumer. Further, the general consensus among those testifying before the Committee was that the proposed law, which did not include ingredient labeling, did not go far enough.2 In spite of some interest, however, no recommendations for cosmetic ingredient labeling moved beyond the committee stage.

It was not until more than 30 years later that legislative activity resumed on cosmetic ingredient labeling. A consumer petition was submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)3 calling for the regulation of cosmetic ingredient labeling. In their statement outlining grounds for such regulation, the petitioners referred to the fact that the FDA was considering a proposal for the labeling of only sensitizing ingredients. The petitioners agreed this would contribute toward protecting those Americans who experience allergic reactions. One even argued, "there is no benefit-to-risk ratio with respect to cosmetics."4

However, the petitioners did not believe such labeling would fully inform consumers and enable them to make value comparisons between products. They contended that full ingredient labeling would promote fair and efficient functioning of a free market economy by allowing consumers to "vote with their pocketbooks" and increase the competitive posture of the marketplace.

Voluntary Disclosure

In effort to thwart this legislation, the former Cosmetic, Toiletries and Fragrance Association (CTFA)—now the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC)—helped to implement a voluntary approach to ingredient disclosure.5 These disclosures were made only to the FDA and were not available to the general public. At that time, the cosmetic industry expressed fear that requiring the revelation of all the cosmetic ingredients in their products would allow imitators to flood the cosmetic market with inferior products sold at lower prices, causing serious losses to the established cosmetic industry.

Now that regulations have been in effect for 40 years, how have they met their objectives? Neither the benefit perceived, nor the damage feared by the industry have come to pass.

Labeling Law and Objectives

It was not until 1975 that the FDA required ingredient labeling on cosmetics. The final regulation relating to cosmetic ingredient labeling was published in the Federal Register on March 15, 1974,6 and all cosmetic products labeled after March 31, 1975, were required to comply with the regulation. Shortly thereafter, European Union (EU) regulations for cosmetic ingredient labeling were included in the EU Cosmetic Directive issued in 1976.7 In principle, these were similar to U.S. regulations but with some different specifications.

A review of the legislative history for cosmetic ingredient labeling underscores three main objectives. First and foremost, to alert the allergic consumer to the presence of allergens to which they might be sensitive. Second, to allow the consumer to compare formulas as a way to make a better economic buying decision. Last, and less-stressed, was to give the consumer more complete knowledge about the ingredients in the products they were using.

Are the Objectives Being Met?

Now that these regulations have been in effect for more than 40 years, it is worth considering how well they are accomplishing their objectives. Consumer advocate groups believed that full ingredient labeling would promote value comparisons between products and, in turn, lower their prices. Also, the cosmetic industry expressed fear that ingredient labeling would allow imitators to flood the cosmetic market and cause serious losses to the established industry.

In fact, neither the benefit perceived by consumer groups, nor the damage feared by the industry came to pass. And this is no surprise. Consider the three ingredient listings shown in Table 1, which were downloaded from the internet. These disclosures are for commercial creams selling for $98, $49 and $15, and intended for use on the neck. Does anyone really think a typical consumer could make an economic value judgment based on this information? (Note the $15 cream is shown in Table 1, Example 3.) I am unaware of any study that has demonstrated either the consumer economic benefits or industry economic damage as a result of cosmetic ingredient labeling. Based on this, I do not think the economic issues cited as benefits from ingredient labeling are warranted.

Let us consider the other two reasons for ingredient labeling: a) the importance of a consumer being able to avoid ingredients to which they are sensitive, and b) supplying the consumer with more complete information about ingredients in products they use. I fully agree with both of these objectives but I question whether our current practice is the best way to accomplish them.

Table 2 provides another ingredient list downloaded from the internet. It is not unlike many others that list more than 50 ingredients. Now, let us assume a consumer has been advised to avoid the fragrance allergen benzyl salicylate. While he or she should have access to the full ingredient disclosure—so they know what is in the product—putting all the ingredients on the label as such makes it difficult for them to find the potentially sensitizing ingredient. It is my contention that a nonscientific consumer would have great difficulty just reading through this ingredient list, especially while standing at a cosmetic counter, let alone finding the offending ingredient.

As a simpler solution, why not list on the package only the ingredients that may be of importance for consumers to know before purchasing?

Simpler Solution

As a simpler solution, why not list on the package only the ingredients that may be of importance for consumers to know before purchasing, then require the product website to provide not only the full ingredient disclosure, but their functions in the product? I recognize that it would require considerable consumer, government and industry agreement on what ingredients would be required on the label versus on the website. However, I believe the consumer would truly benefit.

As an example, perhaps omit the ingredients from the label that are solvents, emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilizers, etc. Under this approach, Table 3 shows what the new ingredient label might look like for the original one shown in Table 2.

I believe this simplified label would better serve the immediate need of a consumer as they consider making a product purchase. And is that not the real purpose for which ingredient labeling was intended? I also believe that, by having the complete ingredients along with their function listed on a web site, this will better inform the user about not only the ingredients in the product, but also why they are used.

Finally, for industry, this would ease problems of cramped labels on small packages while offering marketing opportunities by driving consumers to visit their website.

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What do you think of this proposal? Continue the discussion by sending us your feedback at CTEdit@allured.com.


  1. 1. U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, C,675,52 STAT. 1040, 2 U.S.C.A.9 (1938).
  2. Hearings on S.5 Before a Subcomm. of the Senate Comm. on Commerce, Senate, 74th Cong. (1935).
  3. FDA Cosmetic Ingredient Labeling; Notice of Proposed Rule Making, 38 Fed. Reg. 3523.
  4. FDA Cosmetic Ingredient Labeling; Notice of Proposed Rule Making, 38 Fed. Reg. 3524.
  5. FDA Cosmetic Ingredient Labeling, 38 Fed. Reg. 28914.
  6. Cosmetic Labeling, 21 C.F.R. § 701.3, 39 FR 10056 (1974).
  7. EU Cosmetic Directive, 76/768/ EEC (1976).
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