Be wary of cosmetics that promise a cure

Sometimes cosmetics just promise too much. Can they really eliminate wrinkles, cure acne and make psoriasis disappear?

Cosmetics companies often walk a fine line about the sorts of claims they can make before they've gone too far and can be considered as making the claims of a drug that's subject to testing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers to beware of boasts that could ring hollow because agency officials have seen a lot of them lately.

The FDA notes that it does have purview over certain cosmetics, but only when they're classified as drugs, or if an unregulated product makes claims that it can treat or cure a disease, like a drug would. Last month, for instance, the FDA sent a warning letter to L'Oreal over claims it made in promoting its product Rosalic AR Intense, which is marketed as way to reduce redness associated with rosacea.

When a product is accused of making a drug claim, the FDA gives the company the choice of changing the product claims or having to go through the exhaustive drug approval process.

"Consumers need to know that these drug claims have not been proven to FDA when they are making a decision to purchase one of these products," Dr. Linda M. Katz, director of FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, said in a statement. "These products must be evaluated by FDA as drugs before the companies can make claims about changing the skin or treating disease."

The FDA, which tracks cosmetic product claims, reports the growth of product claims that cross the line, both on the Internet and on packages.

"You walk into a store and see shelves of wonder products," Katz said. "If they're going to be making drug claims, the products need to be evaluated as drugs."

So, what's the difference between a cosmetic and a drug?

The FDA lays it out like this:

  • Products intended to cleanse or beautify are generally regulated as cosmetics.
  • Products intended to treat or prevent disease, or affect the structure or function of the body, are drugs.
  • Some products are both cosmetics and drugs. Examples include antidandruff shampoos and antiperspirant-deodorants, as well as makeup with SPF (sun protection factor) numbers. They must meet the requirements for both cosmetics and drugs, as applicable.

It's a problem, Katz said, "when companies have crossed the line between saying that their products will enhance a person's appearance to stating that they will make structural changes to the skin, and even prevent or treat certain medical conditions."

The FDA warns consumers to be leery of claims that rubbing on a cream, for instance, could make you look younger.

Katz suggested applying an old adage as a way to filter the claims: "If a product seems too good to be true, it probably is."

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.