Too many American women, and men as well, buy cosmetics products based on advertising claims. It doesn't take long to discover that the ads, despite all their attractiveness, promise precious little to nothing at all. Nonetheless, too many consumers seem convinced that "manufacturers couldn't say it if it wasn't true."

Cosmetic regulation falls under the federal Food and Drug Administration. To the surprise of many, regulations on cosmetics are minimal and nowhere near what they are in food and drugs. Drugs have to be proven safe and effective before marketing. Not so with cosmetics.To be more specific, there is no regulation requiring cosmetic manufacturers to test cosmetic ingredients or products for effectiveness before or after being marketed.

Furthermore, no cosmetic company is required to register with the FDA or to inform the agency about its existence. There is no regulation requiring manufacturers to release cosmetic formulas to the FDA and no regulation requiring adverse reactions to be reported to the FDA.

Ingredient labeling is required, but flavors, fragrances, trade secrets and professional packages are exempt from the labeling regulation. A voluntary registration and reporting program has been promoted by the industry. But as is often the case, voluntarism is thought to be for the other guy and the other guy isn't paying attention.

While the FDA oversees cosmetic safety, it devotes only 1 percent of its annual budget to the task and is absurdly understaffed. Just over 30 individuals are employed to evaluate the scores of thousands of cosmetics products currently on the shelves, and this number includes field and management personnel.

The FDA is sympathetic to consumer complaints and responds by recalling cosmetic products proven to cause injury or illness. With such limited funds and staff, however, the agency can do little more than make sporadic checks for cleanliness in cosmetic manufacturing facilities.

So what is the consumer to do? Give up buying cosmetics? Certainly not. When carefully selected and used, these products enhance the way we look as well as the way we feel.

What all of this means to consumers is one simple fact: You are on your own. It is up to you to discover whether a product is safe and whether it does what is claimed. While a product may be reasonably safe to use, the question remains whether it does anything or not. You need to become informed.

Reputable books about cosmetics are available in local libraries and bookstores, at least one of which should be read by anyone who uses cosmetic products better yet, kept at home for ready reference.

These books include "The AMA Book of Skin and Hair Care" prepared by the American Medical Association and "A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients" by Ruth Winter. Both books are regularly revised and updated.

Other excellent source books include "Dr. Zizmor's Brand-Name Guide to Beauty Aids" by Jonathan Zizmor, M.D.; "Cosmetics: What the Ads Don't Tell You" by Carol Ann Rinzler; "The Buyer's Guide to Cosmetics" by Patricia Boughton and Martha Ellen Hughes; "Cosmetics: The Great American Skin Game" by Toni Stabile; and "Save Your Money, Save Your Face" by Elaine Brumberg.