Cosmetics materials are not a modern invention. Humans have used various substances to alter their appearance or accentuate their features for at least 10,000 years, and possibly a lot longer.
Women in Ancient Egypt used kohl, a substance containing powdered galena (lead sulphide—PbS) to darken their eyelids, and Cleopatra is said to have bathed in milk to whiten and soften her skin. By 3000 B.C men and women in China had begun to stain their fingernails with colours according to their social class, while Greek women used poisonous lead carbonate (PbCO3) to achieve a pale complexion. Clays were ground into pastes for cosmetic use in traditional African societies and indigenous Australians still use a wide range of crushed rocks and minerals to create body paint for ceremonies and initiations.
Today, cosmetics are big business. According to the 2011 Household Expenditure Survey, conducted every five years by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians spend around $4.5 billion on toiletries and cosmetic products every year. Cosmetic advertising, previously directed mainly at women, is now targeting a wider audience than ever.
What is a cosmetic?
In Australia, a cosmetic is defined under the Industrial Chemical (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989 as ‘a substance or preparation intended for placement in contact with any external part of the human body' (this includes the mouth and teeth). We use cosmetics to cleanse, perfume, protect and change the appearance of our bodies or to alter its odours. In contrast, products that claim to ‘modify a bodily process or prevent, diagnose, cure or alleviate any disease, ailment or defect’ are called therapeutics. This distinction means that shampoos and deodorants are placed in the cosmetics category, whilst anti-dandruff shampoos and antiperspirants are considered to be therapeutics.
Regulation and safety
In Australia, the importation, manufacture and use of chemicals—including those used in cosmetics—are regulated by the Australian Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS). NICNAS works to ensure that chemicals used in consumer products do not cause significant harm to users or to the environment.
In the case of cosmetics, every ingredient contained within the product must be scientifically assessed and approved by NICNAS before being manufactured or imported into Australia and before they can be used in consumer products. Where appropriate, NICNAS sets limits on the level at which a chemical can be used in a product and also conducts reviews on chemicals when new evidence arises.
Cosmetic products that make an additional therapeutic claim (such as moisturisers that also lighten the skin) are regulated by a different organisation—the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).