Neon Eyeshadow Has Never Been More Popular, But Is It Safe?
As consumers demand bigger and brighter eyeshadow palettes, brands are stopping at nothing to deliver — even if it means bending the rules.
In 2016, it was muted monochromatic makeup. The next year ushered in a spectrum of sunset reds and dusty pinks, and 2018 was the year of technicolor highlighter. With bold beauty trends on the rise, it’s no surprise that 2019 has been declared the year of neon. Pinterest reports that searches for “neon eyeshadow” jumped a whopping 842% over the past few months. For fans, especially Gen Zers, the look is a celebration of fun, commitment-free expression: Daydream, create, wash it off, and repeat. But what happens when experimenting with the latest beauty trends could put your health at risk?
Numerous headlines from the past few weeks, coupled with posts on Estee Laundry, Temptalia, and Musings Of A Muse, called into question the safety of the colors used in many of the cosmetic industry’s most popular neon palettes. It turns out, numerous beauty brands have been routinely adding colorants to pressed powder palettes that have not been approved for use around the eye area by the FDA, the government agency that regulates cosmetics. What’s more, the products are still being openly sold by top beauty retailers thanks to clever marketing and labeling practices.
Cosmetics safety is serious, but the products in question aren’t counterfeits made by fly-by-night manufacturers, which are notorious for causing nasty reactions and infections from unhygienic conditions and toxic ingredients. Instead, we’re talking about trusted products from billion-dollar companies with a lot to lose. So why and how would these ingredients ever legally make their way into a product that consumers are using on their eyes? And are we really in danger from these products, or is this all being blown out of proportion?
We took our questions to the FDA, a trial lawyer who monitors legislation and litigation affecting the personal care industry, a cosmetic chemist, and an optometrist for answers — and what they had to say might surprise you..
The FDA regulates color additives that go into things like food, medicine, and makeup under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, or the FD&C Act as it’s better known. Each color on the FDA’s approved cosmetics list — which have science-y names like D&C Red No. 21 — can be used on the face, but only some are approved for the eyes and lips.
“We want consumers to be aware that if color additives are not approved by the FDA for use in the area of the eyes, they should not be used for that purpose and cosmetics containing those color additives may not be marketed for that use,” a representative from the FDA told Refinery29. “Since the eyelids are delicate, an allergic reaction, irritation, or other injury in the eye area can be particularly troublesome.”
According to the FDA, this is one reason why imported products can be delayed or detained in customs and never make their way into the U.S., since regulations vary by country and many brands export globally. In 2017, U.S. customs rejected entry for the Lip Contour Duo lipsticks from Huda Beauty (one of the companies in the crossfire of the current neon controversy) for containing unapproved color additives. It’s just one example on a laundry list of products impacted by these laws.
According to cosmetic chemist Susan Raffy, who has been working in R&D for cosmetics brands for over 25 years, it’s been historically unusual to go against the FDA’s regulation over colors. “Most brands use only FDA-approved colors for all products including eye products,” she says. So why are some brands bending the rules today? One guess is that “you can not necessarily obtain some shades with just the approved colors,” Raffy says.
Enter: The neon dilemma. A trending rainbow of vivid, electric shades has taken social media by storm, but require so-bright-they’re-banned neon colors to really pop. For years, celebrity makeup artists have incorporated theater makeup — pots of creamy, ultra-pigmented face paint (not eyeshadow) — into on-set looks to get the daring shades the mainstream cosmetics companies just don’t make. But now, social media has created such a demand that makeup brands are racing to crank out consumer-friendly options.
FDA regulation blocks many neon shades from being used on the eyes; the government agency even has its own regulatory category for fluorescent colors, which are seen as an elevated health danger. But here’s where things get confusing: Many of the color additives currently on the FDA’s no-no list are allowed in the European Union, which is typically known for having stricter cosmetics regulations. You may have heard that the E.U. has banned around 1,400 chemicals for use in cosmetics while the U.S. has restricted or banned about 30. And yes, the color Huda Beauty got flagged for back in 2017 is allowed in the E.U. — even on the eyes. For global brands, that discrepancy either means reformulating for the U.S. market or seeking FDA approval to sell in the U.S.
So why are they considered safe for eyes in the E.U. but not here? It means that the “FDA has not received, evaluated, and approved information supporting the safety of these color additives when used in this way,” an FDA representative told R29. A color additive might be deemed safe by the E.U. but not by the U.S. FDA simply because it has not gone through the proper approval process to prove its safety. A brand dead-set on using a banned color in an eye palette may submit a color additive petition to the FDA to seek approval, which, according to the FDA, could include the brand’s own studies around safety to support the request. However, most brands opt for a different route.
The most popular alternative? Using colors that have only been approved for the face and adding a disclaimer near the ingredient list that says the product isn’t intended for the eyes — which is the approach Huda Beauty chose to take on its most recent Neon Obsessions palette, which passed customs with the same color that was rejected in 2017 because it’s labeled as a “pressed pigment palette” and not an “eyeshadow palette.” Many other popular brands, including Colourpop and Anastasia Beverly Hills, feature similar verbiage on their packaging, with some even calling out specific shades within the palettes as unsafe for the eyes.
That’s the reason there are so many neon products today that look like eyeshadows, feel like eyeshadows, and are modeled all over IG as eyeshadows, but have vague names, like “pressed powder” or “pressed pigment.” The word “eye” is purposefully left out of marketing materials and labels, despite photos that show the color swept across lids and waterline.
As for the brands that feature a disclaimer not to use on eyes, and then turn around and show models wearing the product on their eyes, Kelly Bonner, associate attorney at Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia, had this to say: “All labelling must be truthful, not misleading, and contain all required information in a prominent and conspicuous place. Determining whether a label is misleading requires considering whether it contains deceptive representations, or leaves out material facts or consequences resulting from the intended use of the product.”
These mixed messages from brands are becoming more common. For example, Anastasia Beverly Hills has three shades in its Riviera Palette that feature a disclaimer (“not intended for use around the immediate eye area”) yet the brand's official video tutorials show it being used on eyes. These videos can be seen on the brand’s official Youtube page as well as on its e-commerce product page. The disclaimer about safety, however, can only be found on the back of the package, which begs the question: Is a consumer more likely to watch a Youtube video or read the fine print under the ingredient label after purchasing the palette?
Furthermore, would a jury consider modeling the products on eyes as an example of misbranding? Bonner says there’s a lack of precedent, so it’s anyone’s guess, but to even get there, a plaintiff would have to prove that they were injured from the product. The FDA’s public database of complaints shows reports of alleged adverse reactions to neon face paint and nail polish from various brands, but none from the palettes currently in question at time of publication.
To address the many brands that are both labeling products for eyes and using unapproved ingredients — which is prohibited by federal law and violates federal regulations — the most consumers can do is call on the FDA to take action. According to Bonner, “the FD&C Act does not have a private right of action, which means that members of the public can’t sue to enforce the Act’s provisions. Only the federal government can enforce the FD&C Act.”
Which brings us to perhaps the most important question of this whole controversy: What kind of risks are we really even talking about?
The Real Risks
To start, Los Angeles-based optometrist Kambiz Silani, OD, notes that a reaction to eye makeup of any color, whether it’s been approved by the FDA or not, is always possible and can include irritation, allergies, dryness, dermatitis, blepharitis (swollen eyelids), light sensitivity, and blurry vision. Those prone to these issues should be extra careful, and anyone with symptoms should immediately stop using the product and call their eye doctor for guidance.
Yes, this is all normal, cautious doctor messaging you knew was coming, but here’s the kicker about why the neon colors banned by the FDA could be more dangerous than an irritated eyelid: We just don’t know what they do to eyes. “We are mostly concerned about the products being absorbed by the delicate, thin skin around the eyes as well as the products entering the eye and causing eye symptoms,” Dr. Silani says. He points out that the long-term impacts of both luminescent zinc sulfide (an ingredient often used in Halloween makeup and not recommended for eyes or everyday wear) and fluorescent colors need further research to be understood better — and ultimately deemed safe.
Which means that every time you use a product with one of these banned ingredients you, in theory, risk both an immediate reaction and unknown issues in the future. On top of that, many bloggers have claimed that some of these unapproved colors can stain the eyelids for several days.
Once again, it points to a larger problem: The multi-billion dollar U.S. beauty market is moving light years faster than the government is staffed and funded to regulate, and it will take legislation to change how it operates. You may have heard about the Personal Care Products Safety Act, a bi-partisan bill that’s been in and out of the news. It was introduced back in 2017 — but stalled in the Senate — and is now back on the desk of senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
“If passed, it would be the first substantive update to the FD&C Act since 1938,” Bonner says.“[It would] strengthen the FDA’s ability to regulate cosmetic ingredients.” In short, the bill would empower the FDA to call for a safety review of numerous ingredients and contaminants each year and require companies to report serious adverse reactions from beauty products within 15 days of receiving the complaint. That’s correct: Currently, brands don’t have to tell the FDA when consumers report negative reactions, no matter how serious.
What’s more, it would increase transparency for online shoppers who don’t see warning labels until after they’ve ordered and opened the product. “Regarding labels, the PCPSA would require companies to label cosmetics that contain ingredients not safe for children or pregnant women, and to post complete label information, including warning statements, online,” Bonner says. This in itself would change the game by increasing the likelihood that warning labels are actually read and consumers have a fair shot to see ingredients before entering their credit card info.
Of course it’s proven incredibly difficult to get a cosmetics bill passed. Two similar bills, the FDA Cosmetic Safety Modernization Act and Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act, have also stalled in front of its Senate Committee. Those brought at a state level haven’t fared better, either. "Anytime there’s new legislation proposed to protect consumer safety, the industry being regulated will naturally push back against the changes," says Emily Rusch, the executive director of advocacy group CALPIRG who worked on the Toxic Free Cosmetics Act in California, which failed to pass in April. "I’ll continue to fight... because Californians shouldn’t have to worry about what’s in their mascara or in their daughter’s lipstick.”
Until things change, it appears that many of the brands cleaning house within this massively-lucrative and growing industry are choosing small package disclaimers over petitioning the FDA for approval. At the time of publication, the FDA did not disclose any petitions for new color additive approvals in process and every brand named in this article has declined to comment.
Without additional testing and research on the FDA’s banned neon colors, Dr. Silani says the best course of action is to only use them as directed — far away from the eyes — and to shop clean beauty brands for alternatives.
“Natural cosmetics try to avoid any pigments made with petroleum or potentially harmful dyes,” says Merrady Wickes, makeup artist and head of content and education at The Detox Market. Don’t expect to find fluorescent neon powders in the clean beauty world, but brights are easier to source than you’d think, she says. She recommends the Zuzu Luxe Liquid Eyeliner in Azure for a vibrant pop of aqua-blue liner or the Aether Beauty Crystal Grid Gemstone Eyeshadow Palette for colorful purples and greens.
As for the products already in your makeup bag, you can check the ingredients and, if you find banned colors, let the brand know your thoughts. At the end of the day, consumer demand got us here in the first place — and consumer demand could very well get us out of it.
Huda Beauty declined to comment on this article. Colourpop and Anastasia Beverly Hills have not yet provided comments at press time.