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  5. Color Additives and Cosmetics: Fact Sheet
  1. Color Additives in Specific Products

Color Additives and Cosmetics: Fact Sheet

Color additives are subject to a strict system of approval under U.S. law [Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), sec. 721; 21 U.S.C. 379e]. Except in the case of coal-tar hair dyes, failure to meet U.S. color additive requirements causes a cosmetic to be adulterated [FD&C Act, sec. 601(e); 21 U.S. Code 361(e)]. Color additive violations are a common reason for detaining imported cosmetic products offered for entry into this country.

Some Basic Requirements

If your product (except coal-tar hair dyes) contains a color additive, by law [FD&C Act, Sec. 721; 21 U.S.C. 379e; 21 CFR Parts 70 and 80] you must adhere to requirements for:

  • Approval. All color additives used in cosmetics (or any other FDA-regulated product) must be approved by FDA. There must be a regulation specifically addressing a substance's use as a color additive, specifications, and restrictions.
  • Certification. In addition to approval, a number of color additives must be batch certified by FDA if they are to be used in cosmetics (or any other FDA-regulated product) marketed in the U.S.
  • Identity and specifications. All color additives must meet the requirements for identity and specifications stated in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
  • Use and restrictions. Color additives may be used only for the intended uses stated in the regulations that pertain to them. The regulations also specify other restrictions for certain colors, such as the maximum permissible concentration in the finished product.

How are color additives categorized?

The FD&C Act Section 721(c) [21 U.S. C. 379e(c)] and color additive regulations [21 CFR Parts 70 and 80] separate approved color additives into two main categories: those subject to certification (sometimes called "certifiable") and those exempt from certification. In addition, the regulations refer to other classifications, such as straight colors and lakes.

  • Colors subject to certification. These color additives are derived primarily from petroleum and are sometimes known as "coal-tar dyes" or "synthetic-organic" colors. (NOTE: Coal-tar colors are materials consisting of one or more substances that either are made from coal-tar or can be derived from intermediates of the same identity as coal-tar intermediates. They may also include diluents or substrata. (See Federal Register, May 9, 1939, page 1922.) Today, most are made from petroleum.)
    • Except in the case of coal-tar hair dyes, these colors must not be used unless FDA has certified that the batch in question has passed analysis of its composition and purity in FDA's own labs. If the batch is not FDA-certified, don't use it.
    • These certified colors generally have three-part names. The names include a prefix FD&C, D&C, or External D&C; a color; and a number. An example is "FD&C Yellow No. 5." Certified colors also may be identified in cosmetic ingredient declarations by color and number alone, without a prefix (such as "Yellow 5").
  • Colors exempt from certification. These color additives are obtained primarily from mineral, plant, or animal sources. They are not subject to batch certification requirements. However, they still are considered artificial colors, and when used in cosmetics or other FDA-regulated products, they must comply with the identity, specifications, uses, restrictions, and labeling requirements stated in the regulations [21 CFR 73].
  • Straight color. "Straight color" refers to any color additive listed in 21 CFR 73, 74, and 81 [21 CFR 70.3(j)].
  • Lake. A lake is a straight color extended on a substratum by adsorption, coprecipitation, or chemical combination that does not include any combination of ingredients made by a simple mixing process [21 CFR 70.3(l)]. Because lakes are not soluble in water, they often are used when it is important to keep a color from "bleeding," as in lipstick. In some cases, special restrictions apply to their use. As with any color additive, it is important to check the Summary of Color Additives Listed for Use in the United States in Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics and Medical Devices and the regulations themselves [21 CFR 82, Subparts B and C] to be sure you are using lakes only for their approved uses.

How can I guard against color additive violations?

Several precautions can help you avoid color additive violations that will cause your cosmetic to be adulterated:

  • Do not confuse certified colors with their uncertified counterparts. For example, FD&C Yellow No. 5 is the certified form of tartrazine, and is approved for use in cosmetics generally. But tartrazine, which has not undergone FDA analysis and received FDA certification, must not be substituted for or identified in an ingredient declaration as FD&C Yellow No. 5.
  • Do not confuse certified colors with colors identified only by a Colour Index (CI) number, or by the E number sometimes used in European color identification. You must not use a color subject to certification unless FDA has certified the batch in question [FD&C Act, sec. 721(a)(1)(A). A CI or E number does not indicate FDA certification.
  • When purchasing color additives subject to certification, check the label. If the lot is certified, the color's label must state the legal name for the color (such as "FD&C Yellow No. 5"), or, if it is a mixture, the name of each ingredient; the FDA lot certification number; and the color's uses and restrictions as stated in the CFR [21 CFR 70.25).
  • Check the Summary of Color Additives on FDA's Web site. Although this table is not a substitute for the regulations, it is an easy-to-use reference that introduces you to FDA-approved color additives and directs you to the regulations addressing specific color additives.
  • Become familiar with the regulations themselves. The color additive regulations are in 21 CFR Parts 70 through 82. Specific color additives are addressed in Parts 73, 74, and 82. The color additive regulations are posted on FDA's Web site. To purchase printed copies of the CFR by credit card, call the Government Printing Office at (202) 512-1800, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. To pay by check, write to the Superintendent of Documents, Attn: New Orders, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. Contact the Government Printing Office directly for current costs.
  • Confirm the status of color additives before use. There may be changes in color additive approvals and changes in the uses and restrictions that apply to a color additive. Such changes may affect colors subject to certification as well as colors exempt from certification. To stay current with the regulations, you can check the latest edition of the CFR and FDA Dockets. You also may contact FDA at Color.Cert@fda.hhs.gov .
  • When purchasing colors subject to certification, confirm that the manufacturer has requested certification. For example, you can choose a manufacturer from FDA's list of companies that have requested color certification within the past two years. If the company that appears on the color additive label is not on this list, you may contact FDA at Color.Cert@fda.hhs.gov to determine whether the company has in fact requested certification of its color additives.

Must I match colors with intended use?

Yes. No matter whether a particular color is subject to certification or exempt from certification, U.S. law prohibits its use in cosmetics (or any other FDA-regulated product) unless it is approved specifically for the intended use [FD&C Act, sec. 721(a)(1)(A); 21 U.S.C. 379e(a)(1)(A)].

The regulations also restrict intended use as follows:

  • Eye-area use: You may not use a color additive in the area of the eye unless the regulation for that additive specifically permits such use [21 CFR 70.5(a)]. The "area of the eye" includes "the area enclosed within the circumference of the supra-orbital ridge and the infra-orbital ridge, including the eyebrow, the skin below the eyebrow, the eyelids and the eyelashes, and conjunctival sac of the eye, the eyeball, and the soft areolar tissue that lies within the perimeter of the infra-orbital ridge" [21 CFR 70.3(s)]. Although there are color additives approved for use in products such as mascara and eyebrow pencils, silver nitrate is the only color additive approved for dyeing the eyebrows or eyelashes, but for professional use only. The FDA has provided for the safe use of silver nitrate as a color additive, in professional-use only cosmetics, to color eyebrows and eyelashes [21 CFR 73.2550]. Use is restricted to up to 4 percent silver nitrate (by weight) in a viscous gel product. These silver nitrate containing cosmetic products are not intended for use on persons under the age of 16 or for application for longer than 1 minute. Furthermore, these products are not for distribution or direct sale to consumers.    
  • Externally applied cosmetics: This term does not apply to the lips or any body surface covered by mucous membrane. For instance, if a color additive is approved for use in externally applied cosmetics, you may not use it in products such as lipsticks unless the regulation specifically permits this use [21 CFR 70.3 (v)].
  • Injection: No color additive may be used in injections unless its listing in the regulations specifically provides for such use. This includes injection into the skin for tattooing or permanent makeup. The fact that a color additive is listed for any other use does not mean that it may be used for injections [21 CFR 70.5(b)]. There are no color additives listed in the regulations as approved for injections.

What about special effects and novelty use?

No matter how exotic or novel the color additive or its intended use, it is subject to the same regulations as the more everyday colors and products. The following items are a sampling of some out-of-the-ordinary color additives. This list is not exhaustive. Rather, it is intended to show how the regulations apply to such colors:

  • Color-changing pigments: Colors that change in response to such factors as change in pH or exposure to oxygen or temperature are subject to the same regulations as all other color additives.
  • Composite pigments: Color additives used in combination to achieve variable effects, such as those found in pearlescent products, are subject to the same regulations as all other color additives. Some color additives, when used in combination, may form new pigments, which may not be approved for the intended use. An example is a "holographic" glitter, consisting of aluminum, an approved color additive, bonded to an etched plastic film.
  • Fluorescent colors: Only the following fluorescent colors are approved for use in cosmetics, and there are limits on their intended uses: D&C Orange No. 5, No. 10, and No. 11; and D&C Red No. 21, No. 22, No. 27, and No. 28 [21 CFR 74.2254, 74.2260, 74.2261, 74.2321, 74.2322, 74.2327, and 74.2328].
  • Glow-in-the-dark colors: Luminescent zinc sulfide is the only approved glow-in-the-dark color additive [21 CFR 73.2995].
  • Halloween makeup: These products are considered cosmetics [FD&C Act, sec. 201(i); 21 U.S.C. 321(i)] and are therefore subject to the same regulations as other cosmetics, including the same restrictions on color additives.
  • Liquid crystal colors: These additives, which produce color motifs in a product through diffraction, are unapproved color additives. Their use in cosmetics is therefore illegal [FD&C Act, sec. 601(e); 21 U.S.C. 361(e)].
  • Tattoo pigments: As noted above, no color additives are approved for injection into the skin, as in tattoos and permanent makeup.
  • Theatrical makeup: Like Halloween makeup, these products are considered cosmetics [FD&C Act, sec. 201(i); 21 U.S.C. 321(i)] and are therefore subject to the same regulations as other cosmetics, including the same restrictions on color additives. 

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