When you purchase a skincare product that’s intended to be used to clean or moisturize the face, you would likely assume that the skincare is safe for the eye area, right? After all, the eyes are located ON the face, so if the products weren’t safe for use in the eye area, it would be hard to apply safely. Even if you use the product as directed, keeping it outside of the orbital bone, there’s a good chance that some of the product will wick into the eyes. Simple acts of sweating throughout the day, sleeping, unconsciously rubbing your eyes, and regular sebum production can get product into the eyes.
If the skincare product contains ingredients that are eye irritant, or otherwise not safe for use in the eye area, several things might happen. You might experience minor irritation that feels like dryness or like you have something in your eye, or like you’re wearing a contact lens that’s at the end of its life. It can also show up as redness (“bloodshot” eyes), constant tearing, itchiness (like you might experience with spring allergies), and a rash in the eye area.
However, it could also result in more serious reactions such as allergies, sensitization, or bacterial or viral eye infections that require medical treatment. The absolute worst-case scenario is blindness.
“Doctor-approved” and “hypoallergenic claims do not mean the skincare is safe for the eye area.
Many skincare products on the market are not adequately tested for eye safety–even those sold by large corporations who can easily afford testing. Even skincare products that have claims such as “ophthalmologist tested,” “doctor approved,” “hypoallergenic,” or “non-allergenic” might contain potentially irritant, allergenic, or otherwise unsafe ingredients for the eyes.
These claims are not regulated in the United States, and fall under the category of “cosmeceutical” claims (the FDA does not recognize the term “cosmeceutical” either), or health claims, which fall outside the legal definition of a cosmetic.
According to the FDA, “Hypoallergenic” cosmetics are products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergic reactions than other cosmetic products. Consumers with hypersensitive skin, and even those with “normal” skin, may be led to believe that these products will be gentler to their skin than non-hypoallergenic cosmetics.
Unfortunately, there is no federal standard definition for this term, and even if there was, it would be difficult to substantiate since anyone can develop an allergy to anything at any time. Allergies depend on bio-individual factors such as gut health, immune function, what toxicants a person is exposed to repeatedly, and one’s overall body burden.
Furthermore, manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic–in addition to other claims such as “doctor tested” or “safety tested” are not required to submit substantiation of these claims to the FDA. These claims are marketing terms, and have little legal or clinical meaning.
In the United States, testing is recommended, but not required.
The FDA requires that all cosmetic makers/manufacturers ensure product safety and clear instructions on the label for how to properly use and store the product. However, they do not provide exact guidelines or a list of tests required for any particular cosmetic product or ingredient.
And while this might seem shocking, cosmetics themselves do not have to be sterile. They must, however, not contain any harmful microorganisms (pathogenic bacteria, mold, or yeast), and the number of aerobic microorganisms per gram must be low.
This has become quite problematic in the current industry due to “the preservative free” trend that ensued as a result of misinformation about preservatives. Inadequately preserved or unpreserved skincare products are not safe to use in the eye area, with the exception of certain anhydrous products.
While there are definite health risks associated with certain preservatives, many that are used in products are non-toxic. If a skincare product contains water, humectants, or aqueous “waterless” substances, then it must contain a preservative in order to keep that microbe count under control.
Simple microbial, stability, and safety testing aren’t even required; never mind in vitro and alternative toxicology tests for things like ocular irritation, dermal irritation/corrosivity/sensitization, or phototoxicity.
Other skincare ingredients to avoid in the eye area
The eye area is sensitive enough that the FDA has provided several consumer safety and usage do’s and don’ts for cosmetics intended for use in the eye area. However, they do not provide safety information or guidelines for skincare formulations for manufacturers, other than regulating certain colorants and pigments.
A huge area of oversight is the use of synthetic fragrances in facial cosmetics. It is a fact that synthetic fragrances are one of the leading causes of irritant and allergic eye reactions. Yet, few skincare products and color cosmetics marketed for use in the eye area are fragrance-free.
As much as I prefer essential oils and CO2 extracts over synthetic fragrances to scent my skincare products, most herbalists and aromatherapists caution against their use in the eye area. Many even advise against using diluted essential oils in facial cosmetics at all, in order to prevent them from accidentally getting into the eyes. While there are some clinical uses for essential oils around the eye area, this is something that should be done short-term, under the supervision of a trained aromatherapist or natural health doctor.
Powdered herbs, gemstones, and clays
Even the most finely ground cosmetic grade herbs, gemstones, and clays can be unsafe for use in the eye area. Many cosmetic grade powders are so fine that you cannot feel them at all when they are blended into a cream or lotion. However, if they get into the eyes, it can feel like you have sand in your eye. The particles can also cause micro-abrasions and lacerations on the iris or conjunctiva.
Concentrated “actives” or performance ingredients
I always find it ironic that products intended for the most sensitive area on the face often contain the most concentrated extracts and performance ingredients. Ingredients to combat dark undereye circles such as arbutin or kojic acid, “anti-aging” ingredients such as Vitamin C, retinoids, and peptides can be extremely eye irritant. Even natural oils infused with multiple herbs and flowers can be eye irritant or cause an allergic reaction.
I recommend a less is more approach to the eye area.
I teach my Create Your Skincare Pro students to be very mindful and extremely cautious with any products they create that will end up in the eye area, even if by accident. I advise them to exclude essential oils, “actives,” and complex botanical blends completely in eye makeup removers or eye creams, and to make sure they are diluted properly for other facial skincare products. I also advise them to skip synthetic fragrances completely. When choosing ingredients, I teach simplicity and purpose over buzzwords and blends that are complex for the sake of complexity.
I teach my students that they absolutely must conduct microbial, safety, and stability testing on their products, and keep detailed batch and quality control records.
I also teach them to follow the ingredient usage/dosing guidelines according to any available MSDS or ingredient specs, dermal limits, and herbal dosing limits according to the literature (both anecdotal and clinical) and Made Safe’s data.
I also advise my students against using unsubstantiated marketing claims that may mislead consumers or imply that the product is a drug instead of a cosmetic. Avoiding claims is safer for the client, and in the long run, safer for the maker. Quite frankly, it’s not possible to guarantee unequivocally that someone’s skincare is safe for the eye area.
The fact of the matter is that the skin doesn’t need the majority of what the industry teaches us it needs. At all. And we must take care with our eyes. We only get one set, and if permanent damage occurs, the consequences are dire and life-altering.
Have you ever experienced an irritant or allergic eye reaction from skincare or makeup?
I’d love to hear about it, and what you now use instead. Please share in the comments below.