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Definition of a Cosmetic

Each country has a set of laws and regulations regarding the manufacture of cosmetics. This could include product safety and use, as well as what their definition of a cosmetic is. However, while much legislation does overlap from country to country, there is no global standard. Rules do vary from country to country. Here we look at how some countries define cosmetics, along with the main legislation that governs cosmetic safety.

As a rule, most countries have a definition for what they class as a cosmetic, a drug and food. Ultimately, how a product is defined depends on three main things:

  • What is the product’s purpose?
  • Where and how is it used?
  • What is it made of?

However, this definition can vary from country to country. This means that certain products can be classed as a cosmetic in some countries, but then classed as a drug in others. For example, sunscreen is classed as a cosmetic in New Zealand and the EU, but as a drug in the USA.

Incidentally, the term “cosmeceutical” is not recognised as a category of product. In other words, it is purely a marketing term, but not one that is legally recognised.

Who Does Legislation Apply To?

Each country has its own legislation and will apply it to anyone who imports, makes or sells anything that is classed as a cosmetic.

For instance, if you are making and selling your own products in the UK, you must follow the cosmetic legislation in the UK. Furthermore, if you also sell the same products in the USA, you must follow the legislation there.


Definition of a Cosmetic

The definition of a cosmetic in Australia is similar to that of the EU and the USA. Basically, a substance intended to come into contact with any external part of the human body, mouth, or teeth to clean, to change the appearance of, or to alter odour.

Main Legislation

Ingredients in cosmetic products are regulated as industrial chemicals under the Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989 (the Act). This also includes ingredients described as “natural”.

In addition to this, there is also the Cosmetic Standards 2007. This is the national standard for cosmetics either imported into or made in Australia. The Australian Government enforces those standards.


Definition of a Cosmetic

Section 2 of the Food and Drugs Act defines a cosmetic as:

“Any substance or mixture of substances manufactured, sold or represented for use in cleaning, improving or altering the complexion, skin, hair or teeth, and includes deodorants and perfumes.”

Main Legislation

Personal care products are regulated under the Food and Drugs Act. Furthermore, they fall into one of three categories: a) cosmetic, b) drugs or c) natural health products. Each of these categories is covered by its own set of regulations under the Food and Drug Act.

European Union & EEA

Definition of a Cosmetic

In the European Union (EU), The Cosmetic Directive (1976) defines a cosmetic as:

“A “cosmetic product” shall mean any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the various external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lip and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view to exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance and/or correcting body odours and/or penetrating them or keeping them in good condition.”

In simple terms, this means that many everyday personal care products we buy in stores may be thought of as a cosmetic.

However, if a product also makes medical claims, it is not legally classed as a cosmetic and is covered by different laws. Take hand wash for example. If the hand wash simply washes off dirt and refreshes, it is classed as a cosmetic. However, if the hand wash also claims to kill bacteria, it is classed as a medicine. Generally, both hand washes would likely be viewed as cosmetic products by the average consumer. But in the eyes of EU law, only one is defined as a cosmetic.

Main Legislation

The EU Cosmetics Directive (76/768/EEC) is the main EU law on the safety of cosmetics. It is also applicable to the European Economic Area (EEA). In the UK, the directive is executed as the Cosmetic Product (Safety) Regulations 2008.

The Cosmetics Directive covers many aspects of a cosmetic, including:

  • Listing the ingredients that are banned from cosmetic use. It also includes restricted ingredients or those only allowed under certain conditions (for example, subject to a warning on the label).
  • The production method uses good manufacturing processes, from analysis through to safety assessments of ingredients.
  • The presentation of a cosmetic, including appearance, packaging and labelling.
  • Uniform rules on cosmetic labelling, which include the listing of ingredients, the weight or volume, precise instructions of use, and how long it lasts.
  • The accurate marketing of cosmetics to prevent false claims being made.
  • Ensuring traceability of a cosmetic throughout the whole supply chain.
  • Taking measures against counterfeit products.

Many of the above aspects have their own specific regulation.


Main Legislation

The Standards for Cosmetics mainly covers the ingredients that are permitted to be used in cosmetics. It also lists the ingredients that are prohibited.

New Zealand

Main Legislation

The Environmental Protection Authority sets the rules for cosmetics and all similar products. The rules are contained in the Cosmetic Products Group Standard. This came into force in 2006 and is based on the EU regulations.

United States of America

Definition of a Cosmetic

The Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) defines cosmetics as:

“Articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body… for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”

Included in this definition are products such as skin moisturisers, perfumes, lipsticks, and nail polishes. Likewise, eye and facial makeup preparations, shampoos, permanent waves, hair colours, toothpaste, and deodorants are also classed as cosmetics. Additionally, any ingredients or materials intended for use as part of a cosmetic product are also included.

Main Legislation

Cosmetics are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Consequently, some laws and regulations deal with different aspects of cosmetics, from labelling and ingredients to marketing and nanotechnology.

Under the FD&C Act, cosmetic products and ingredients, except for colour additives, do not require FDA approval before they go on the market.


The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) publishes guidelines on the safe manufacturing of cosmetic products under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standard – ISO 22716:2007.

Regulators in several countries and regions have adopted this standard, effectively replacing their existing guidance and standards.

ISO 22716 gives guidelines for the production, control, storage, and shipment of cosmetics.

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