Updated: Mar 25
Attempting to market and sell handmade soap (cosmetic) and other cosmetics in the United States within the confines of the FDA and other legal agencies can be difficult and tricky to navigate. We want to share with customers the amazing and wonderful benefits of our products, but we need to do so in a way that both follows the law and protects the consumer.
The FDA defines a cosmetic as a product that is "intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance." The FDA defines a drug as "articles intended for use in the... cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease... and ... articles ... intended to affect the structure or any function of the body."
The FDA definition for soap has two requirements. First, "the bulk of the nonvolatile matter in the product consists of an alkali salt of fatty acids and the product's detergent properties are due to the alkali-fatty acid compounds" (aka, it must be primarily comprised of soap) and second, "the product is labeled, sold, and represented solely as soap." Our handcrafted soaps can be sold as either a true soap or as a cosmetic. If selling as a soap, it must be comprised primarily of soap, and offer no cosmetic claims. What is the difference between selling as a soap and selling as a cosmetic? If marketing your soap as having other attributes and traits other than purely cleansing (such as softening, brightening, moisturizing), then it must be sold as a cosmetic and is required to adhere to all FDA laws and regulations for cosmetics. True soaps do not have as stringent and strict of requirements, especially when it comes to labeling.
Even if you think your honey oatmeal soap "heals psoriasis" or believe your charcoal soap "heals and prevents cystic acne", making this claim about your soap or including it in your description is illegal in the U.S. You aren't allowed to (and shouldn't) make any medical claims about your products, unless of course your product has been tested and scientifically proven to do such things. Medical claims commonly include words like "treats," "cures," and "heals" or make product claims that perform a function that causes a change to the structure or biology. A simple way to remember the difference is to think that cosmetics affect appearance, while drugs heal, treat, and/or affect structure and change. A cosmetic and a drug are not the same thing, although they can have overlapping properties. For example, a skin cream that lightens the skin by decreasing the production of melanin is both a cosmetic (affects the appearance) and a drug (affects and changes biological functions). This product must be tested and approved by the FDA to be sold as both a cosmetic and a drug.
I personally do not believe, nor do I have the qualifications to definitively state, that soaps are capable of providing medical benefits, unless of course a drug is included as an additive. I do however feel that handmade soap offers cosmetic benefits which can include cleansing, exfoliating, brightening, and more. These adjectives are acceptable cosmetic claims and are words used to describe an external product used for beauty enhancing purposes. They affect the appearance, not the structure, form, or function. Even though you can use certain words to describe your product as a cosmetic, it is should be your ethical and legal responsibility to ensure these cosmetic claims are in fact true. For example, if you are selling a cosmetic soap, I don't feel it should be sold under the cosmetic claim "moisturizing" because it is not a product intended for that use, but rather comprised primarily of surfactants that are intended for cleansing. Soaps are not formulated and created to moisturize, but rather remove oil and dirt.
Common words that I use to describe my cosmetic soaps or the experience of cleansing with my soaps include cleansing, brightening, refreshing, sudsy, rich-lathering, skin-loving, softening, handcrafted, handmade, hand-poured, vegan, cruelty-free, gentle, creamy, bubbly, and so much more. If certain additives are included that have a testable and provable function, such as exfoliating additives, you can include those types of descriptors in your marketing strategy as well. When describing cosmetics that are used for rituals or experiences, say a rosemary-mint morning caffeine soap, you can describe and market the experience as awakening, renewing, refreshing, revitalizing, invigorating, and so forth.
Below is a list of over 225 different words that can be used to describe your handmade products for cosmetic and marketing purposes.
All skin types
Indulge/ Indulging/ Indulgent
Love/ Loving/ Loveable/ Lovely/ Loveliness
Not tested on animals
Organic (certification required)
Regenerate/ Regenerating/ Regeneration
Relief/ Relieve/ Relieving
Supports small businesses
Target/ Targets/ Targeting
Hopefully, these words can help give you some inspiration when it comes to describing your amazing handcrafted products. Excellent marketing skills are an absolute necessity for a successful business and this means having the ability to promote and highlight your products. Happy Soaping!
Disclaimer: The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional legal, medical, or business advice. All content, including text, graphics, images, and information, contained on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. I am a cosmetic formulator, soap maker, and scientist, not a lawyer. The terms above are not confirmed or approved for legal use in all contexts. It is still possible to make false or medical claims when using words that are approved for use to describe cosmetics. It is your responsibility as a seller to ensure that your products and their descriptions are compliant with all local, state, and federal regulations.