Browsing through the hashtag #lipglossbusiness on TikTok is a journey of the senses. Shimmery pink glosses with butterfly sequins are squirted into tubes. Different oils, pigments and flavors are mixed together to create "the perfect shade of red." Silver bubble wrap crinkles as it's stuffed with customer orders. Acknowledging the oddly enticing sights and sounds of the process, many of the videos tout an ASMR experience.
The glosses are eye-catching, handmade and cheap -- some selling for as low as $2.99 a tube -- making them a hot commodity among makeup connoisseurs on TikTok. Comments sections are flooded with people around the world hoping to get their hands on the products.
But these videos, which have collectively garnered over 700 million views on the short-form video app, can understandably give some people pause. How sanitary is the creation and packaging of these glosses? What ingredients are going into these products, and how safe are they for your skin and body?
Many of TikTok's top videos place an emphasis on sanitization measures, showing creators washing their hands, wiping down surfaces with Clorox wipes, cleaning their lip gloss filling machines and dousing empty tubes in a cleaning solution before beginning the process. Some give an overview of the ingredients that go into the glosses, like gloss base, coconut oil and in some cases, preservatives.
Other sellers aren't as transparent and may not list all the ingredients they use. A common grievance in TikTok comments is that some business owners don't use gloves when mixing ingredients and packaging glosses, or that they work on surfaces that can't be wiped down and disinfected, like carpeted floors. Unsanitary conditions and unsafe ingredients could lead to adverse reactions in users.
Cosmetics aren't subject to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration. In fact, laws governing the safety of personal care products in the US haven't really changed since 1938. Apart from color additives, the FDA doesn't regulate chemicals in cosmetic products, and it can't issue a mandatory recall if a product is found to be harmful.
It's not just small sellers who face safety issues with their products. Big cosmetic companies have been accused of selling harmful products, too. In 2018, thousands of people complained about hair loss, irritated scalps and other hair-related problems after using DevaCurl products. In 2016, the FDA launched an investigation into another hair-care line, Wen by Chaz Dean, after it was the target of similar complaints. The company eventually settled a $26 million class-action lawsuit. And EOS, the company behind the signature round lip balms, also settled a class-action suit after a "substantial number of consumers" experienced reactions like rashes, blistering and dryness.
So, even if you know the ingredients in a product and it was manufactured in a lab, it's still possible to have an adverse reaction to it. That risk just may be higher with a handmade product because of more uncontrolled variables and, possibly, fewer safety measures.
"People should be aware that cosmetics aren't as well-regulated as drugs are," said Dr. Steve Xu, assistant professor in dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "There's a lot less scrutiny and a lot less federal oversight."
A handful of people in Congress are hoping to change that. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, introduced a bipartisan bill in 2019 called the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would require companies to ensure their products are safe before going to market. If passed, it would also provide the FDA with the "authority to regulate personal care products" and would set up a process for doing so, including a safety review of ingredients used in cosmetics.
In the meantime, it's critical for consumers to do their own research about what products and ingredients might be harmful to them. This is especially true when purchasing from small online businesses, since not all sellers list their ingredients and manufacturing practices.
"Overall, personal care products are really safe," Xu said. "But there are things where you're probably not going to get the same level of quality control as you would from a big-box brand. For a lot of these products ... you don't know where they come from, [so] there is a risk that they have adulterated ingredients."
Carefully vetting cosmetics
Consumers should bear in mind that, just because a product is handmade, that doesn't mean it's automatically better or safer, says Dr. Tamarra James-Todd, assistant professor of environmental reproductive and perinatal epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"Oftentimes, people equate things that are made at home as being more natural," James-Todd said, "but you may just be adding something that's equally as harmful to your more 'natural' product."
Anyone creating their own cosmetics, whether to sell or for personal use, should educate themselves about each ingredient they're putting in. This includes preservatives, which are typically added to lip glosses to make them last longer. Often the preservatives used are parabens, a group of chemicals also found in a variety of other cosmetic and body care products including shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and sunscreens. Some studies suggest parabens can cause harm such as disrupting hormones, negatively impacting fertility and reproductive organs, and possibly increasing the risk of cancer.
Another major concern doctors have about some cosmetic products is the use of certain essential oils, which may not always be safe. Dr. Rajani Katta, a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, says essential oils have a high risk of triggering an allergic reaction when used directly on the skin. James-Todd notes that people should be particularly aware of oils like lavender and tea tree oil, which can alter the normal functioning of the endocrine system.
"That's the fad I see that's really taken off," James-Todd said regarding essential oils. "Most people don't know what they are. They like the smell and they think it's safe … It's really key that if you're going to be making your own products, you educate yourself about what ingredients are in those products and what are some of the derivatives that could potentially be harmful."
Ensuring safety in manufacturing
Gina Alva began making her own cosmetics last year after seeing DIY lip gloss videos all over TikTok. Within four days of posting her own video, she hit 10,000 followers. Alva, who makes vegan lip glosses, now has over 400,000 followers on her TikTok account Glossy Gems.
She says she's learned a lot about how to safely make cosmetics both for herself and for her business over the past year. Unfortunately, she notes, not all creators put the time into learning which ingredients to use and how to create glosses in a sanitary way.
Alva has seen all kinds of unsafe practices, from people not using gloves to dousing filled lip gloss tubes in water, which can then seep into the product and invite bacteria. She's also seen people use pigments in lip glosses that aren't actually designed for lips, such as neons that are meant for soaps. Cosmetic pigments need to be FDA batch certified, she notes, and creators can check lip gloss supply company site TKB Trading, which explains which pigments can be used on lips or eyes.
Thankfully, she notes, TikTok is a way for business owners to provide a behind-the-scenes look at their practices and assure customers they're following the necessary safety precautions. If you're interested in buying a lip gloss or other cosmetic product on TikTok, Alva advises customers to reach out to sellers to ask how long they've been in business and how many customers they have. It's also a good idea to look into their manufacturing process and the ingredients they use, and to learn more about their overall safety measures. If they aren't willing to share any of those details, you're better off not purchasing from them for your own safety.
"There is a niche that wants to support small businesses, which is great," Alva said, "but there should be more transparency in where they're making their cosmetics and their cleanliness."
What to do if you have an adverse reaction
If you're using a cosmetic product and you've developed red, dry, flaky skin on your lips or face that doesn't go away, even after you've stopped using the product, you may need to see a dermatologist, Katta says. If it's a severe reaction, like red, blistered and swollen skin, you might need something like medicated creams, at the very least. If the problem continues, your doctor may need to do some tests to determine what triggered the reaction.
Xu says his message certainly isn't to discourage people from buying from mom-and-pop shops. Rather, "Recognize that there is some risk, even though it's very, very small," he said. "If you have problems or issues, stop the product and talk to your doctor."
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.