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Dangerous beauty: FDA discusses contaminated cosmetics

You might know and follow all the rules to keep your cosmetics safe. But what if your beauty product is contaminated before you even open the packaging? On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is holding a public meeting examining safety issues in cosmetics.

It was 2000, and Seattle esthetician Stacya Silverman won a bag of beauty products at a Las Vegas spa convention, including a seemingly innocuous eye cream.

"I open up the eye cream, and I'm all excited. But the top is all brown, and it has little dots on it. That should've been my first clue," Silverman recalls. "I sort of broke through the crust, and I put it on. My eyes started burning, and then they started leathering up. I looked like a lizard ... for five days."

You might know and follow all the rules to keep your cosmetics safe: Don't share makeup, regularly wash your brushes and applicators and, for god's sakes, throw that stuff out every once in a while. But what if your, say, eye shadow or hair conditioner is contaminated with bacteria, yeasts or molds — before you even open the packaging?

On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is holding a public meeting examining microbiological safety issues in cosmetics. Currently, the FDA doesn't approve cosmetics before they are sold to consumers and has no specific regulations regarding microbial safety in cosmetic products. But the agency is contemplating developing such safety guidelines for cosmetic makers, and the public meeting will give leading experts a chance to have their say.

Contaminated cosmetics, particularly those used in the eye area, can lead to serious issues, according to the FDA. If lotion, often used on the whole body, is tainted, it can lead to infections.

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Reports of adverse events to the FDA can range from a simple rash to something more serious, like facial swelling or breathing troubles. Stephanie Yao, a spokeswoman for the agency, says the public meeting isn't being held because of increased reports of microbial contamination of cosmetics — she calls it more of a "start to the conversation about microbiological safety issues in cosmetics rather than a response to a problem."

During the meeting, the FDA will also address testing cosmetics for contamination, the efficacy of preservatives and how packaging can harbor bacteria.

When it comes to cosmetics, the FDA's legal authority is different from some of the other products the agency regulates, like drugs, biologics or medical devices. Cosmetics aren't subject to FDA premarket approval (except for color additives); instead, cosmetic companies are responsible for testing and ensuring the safety of their products and ingredients before they hit the market.

When there is a problem, the FDA finds out after the fact from reports by consumers, health care providers, inspections and products surveys.

Earlier this month, a John Frieda conditioner (specifically, John Frieda Sheer Blonde Highlight Activating Enhancing Conditioner for Lighter Shades) was recalled due to microbial contamination. And in late October, Purity Cosmetics' 100% Pure Cocoa Plum Eye Shadow was recalled after the item was found to harbor Pseudomonas Luteola, a bacterium that can cause peritonitis, cellulitis and bacteremia.

Most cosmetics contain preservatives, like formaldehyde donor preservatives and parabens, that target and kill bacteria cells or spores in cosmetics, so contamination isn't usually a big problem, explains Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and one of the writers of the popular cosmetic science blog The Beauty Brains.

"The trick is to use these compounds at levels that are not high enough to cause harm to human cells. This has been done safely for decades," Romanowski explains. When contamination is seen in cosmetics, it's usually from bacteria, yeasts or molds.

Of course, contamination in cosmetics is often due to operator-error. Keeping your beauty products in a hot and humid place — like your bathroom — can promote bacteria growth. And hanging on to products for too long can increase the potential for contamination.

Story: Germs lurking in old makeup: It isn't pretty

Anything that goes on or near your eye — especially liquids and creams — needs to be tossed about every three months, says Silverman, who started Beauty Alert, a company that manufactures stickers to remind you when to chuck old products. And whenever you can, use skin care products or foundation that comes in a pump, not a jar, which are more easily contaminated.

"The key is to never share personal care products with other people, and especially don't share ones which require you to touch the product directly in the package," Romanowski says.

Follow health writer Melissa Dahl on Twitter: @melissadahl.