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Are Cosmetics Companies Lying to My Face?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I just heard an ad for hair-care products that are allegedly "certified hypoallergenic." There's no such thing, is there? And is it illegal to make that claim?

Shirley C. Wynnewood, Penn.

A. Dearest Shirley,

Hark! The holidays are here, and many of us might soon find ourselves in situations where we need to look sparkly and shiny, and even smell marginally pleasant. Your letter is a good reminder that we should be careful what we slather on our bodies. Many makers of beauty products have an ugly reputation when it comes to environmental and health claims. We've offered tips for navigating labels before, but it never hurts to freshen up a bit.

To answer your specific question, there is no such thing as certified hypoallergenic (in fact, there's barely such a thing as hypoallergenic). But it is not illegal to use the term, because there are also no standards governing its use. A spokesperson from the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates product labels, told me that hypoallergenic "means whatever a particular company wants it to mean." Other terms are not so lucky: Many fall under guidelines issued by the FDA, which works with the Department of Justice to curb the most unseemly labeling offenses. But the FDA cannot -- and does not pretend to -- regulate every word on every product. Kind of a kicky opportunity for cosmetics companies, and a headache for consumers.


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