"Depilatories act like a chemical razor blade," FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition acting Director John E. Bailey Jr., Ph.D. says. Available in gel, cream, lotion, aerosol, and roll-on forms, they contain a highly alkaline chemical--usually calcium thioglycolate--that dissolves the protein structure of the hair, causing it to separate easily from the skin surface.

"It's very important to carefully follow the use directions for depilatories and to do a preliminary skin test both for allergic reaction and sensitivity," Bailey says. "Hair and skin are similar in composition," he explains, "so chemicals that destroy the hair can also cause serious skin irritations--possibly even chemical burns--if left on too long."

"The concentration of calcium thioglycolate is generally kept as weak as possible to avoid skin irritation, yet strong enough to work in a reasonable amount of time," says Stanley R. Milstein, Ph.D., special assistant to the cosmetics and colors director. "Contact with the skin is kept to somewhere between 4 and 15 minutes, depending on how fine or coarse the hair is."

Consumers should be sure to read the product label and select the formulation appropriate for the intended use, because skin sensitivity varies on different parts of the body. Some depilatories are for use only on the legs, for example, while others are safe for more sensitive areas, such as the bikini line, underarms and face.

Depilatories should not be used for the eyebrows or other areas around the eyes, or on inflamed or broken skin. To minimize the chance of skin irritation, they should not be applied more often than recommended on the product label.

Although cosmetics are not subject to pre-market approval, FDA can take action against products that are found to cause harm.

"If we find an adverse reaction is occurring under recommended use conditions, and not because of misuse by the consumer, we can pursue any number of actions, depending on the severity and prevalence of the problem," says Bailey.

For example, he says, "A depilatory might cause second- or third-degree burns, and possibly scarring, if its formula is too strong or if an inactive ingredient in the product heightens its effect. In that case, FDA may, after evaluating the problem, initiate regulatory action such as seizure or injunction against the product or the firm to stop further manufacture."

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