When most of us think of the phrase “glow in the dark,” we recall the hazy green twinkling of star stickers on our bedroom ceiling or the illuminated sticks we played with at birthday parties and dances. But beauty brands are now taking the luminous idea to the next level by releasing highlighters meant to give you a glow — even after you turn off the lights. In fact, we've already seen a few beauty bloggers testing the product's potential for some fantastical Halloween makeup looks.
And they’re not alone. Americans are expected to spend upwards of $9.1 billion on the holiday this year, according to the National Retail Federation, and you can bet some of that will be on glow-in-the-dark costume materials.
But there are safety questions surrounding these novelty creams and powders, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require specific testing or approvals before a cosmetic product goes to market — the FDA only tests and approves the color additives used in the products.
Does the FDA have anything to say when it comes to products that give off a glow? It does. The agency has divided glow-in-the-dark products into two categories, based on the color additives used: One is fluorescent colors, also known as neon or day-glo, which include eight specific color additives. The other is luminescent colors that glow in the dark thanks to an ingredient called luminescent zinc sulfide, according to cosmetic chemist and Skinects.com founder Ni’Kita Wilson.
Luminescent zinc sulfide is also the only FDA-approved compound used to create that reaction. While both fluorescent and luminescent color additives can be used on skin, they’re not for everyday use, and they’re not to go anywhere near the eyes.
Wilson says these color additives are allowed to be used “on occasion” and notes that one cause of concern is the copper chloride, a hazardous substance that she says “reacts with the zinc sulfide to cause the glow.” While copper chloride makes up only less than 0.02% of the luminescent ingredient (per the FDA regulation), it can irritate the skin. That's why wearing makeup with copper chloride on a regular basis isn't recommended.
Fortunately, you don't have to worry so much about this when it comes to glow-in-the-dark nail polish, since copper chloride can be tolerated better in polish than in facial makeup, according to Wilson. “The FDA does not make the same limiting statements for nails as they do for facial makeup,” she says.
While makeup with luminescent and fluorescent colors are likely safe to wear for your fall festivities, you can check the names of the colors listed on the makeup’s packaging (they’re usually the last ingredients listed) against the FDA’s Summary of Color Additives, which has a special section on colors for cosmetics. If there's a color in your makeup that isn't on its list, the manufacturer is not obeying the law and that ingredient could irritate your skin.
Wilson also recommends you perform a patch test if you do buy a glow-in-the-dark makeup product to ensure your skin can handle it before the party starts. Apply the product behind your ear, instead of your arm, in an area large enough to see the reaction and easily hide it if necessary. “You can try it at night before going to bed so you're not glowing behind the ear during the day,” she says. “Do this for a few nights and see if anything happens.”
Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC, advises anyone who tests their glow-in-the-dark makeup or nail polish to not hesitate to remove the product if they develop any redness, burning, or stinging.
While both fluorescent and luminescent color additives can be used on skin, they’re not for everyday use, and they’re not to go anywhere near the eyes.
While allergic reactions to luminescent nail polishes are rare, they can potentially cause a reaction on your eyelids or skin from rubbing your eyes and other physical contact. “If you have a rash that pops up on the eyelids despite not using any new products on the face, look to your fingernails to see if you used a new polish,” he says. He also notes that Halloween face paints can also cause similar irritation (especially for those who are already acne-prone) and recommends investing in professional theater makeup instead.
But the experts note that it’s not just about what you put on your skin; it’s also about how and when you take it all off once the party is over. “If you plan to use [glow-in-the-dark makeup products], do your best to wash off the makeup as soon as possible,” says Dr. Zeichner. The FDA suggests that you check the labels on any novelty makeup (glow-in-the-dark or not) for removal instructions, and to be extra careful around your eyes, to ensure you don’t irritate your skin or cause a reaction.
If the instructions aren’t available, Dr. Zeichner suggests you wash your face twice to ensure you get every last drop off. “Start with an oil-based cleanser to remove dirt and makeup, followed by a foaming cleanser to finish the job,” he says. “Moisturize the skin after cleansing to help keep your skin barrier hydrated.”
If you follow all of the instructions on the glow-in-dark makeup’s package but still end up with a rash, swelling, or itching in the area, call your doctor so they can make sure it doesn’t become infected. And if the ingredients in your luminescent makeup cause a bad reaction, either you or your doctor can then get in touch with the FDA to help them keep track of any problem products on the market that might need to be recalled.
Fluorescent and luminescent makeup has the potential to add an extra eerie air to your Halloween costume, but it’s best to apply these types of products with caution. As you’re shopping for your spooky supplies, take a look at the glow-in-the-dark product’s ingredients list to suss out any illegal and possibly harmful color additives. And be sure to perform a patch test of the product prior to any parties you’re planning to dress up for to see how well your skin and nails can tolerate the ingredients. It could be the difference between a fun, haunted holiday or a Halloween horror story.