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Consumer advice information

Product safety: an overview

In the guide

This guidance is for England, Scotland & Wales

When products are manufactured, sold, supplied or otherwise made available for your use as a consumer, there is a vast array of safety rules that traders must comply with.

In general, traders that produce and distribute products must only supply products that are safe and must undertake activities such as product marking for identification and traceability purposes, sample testing, complaints investigation, and passing on information to consumers about any risks posed by a product.

Product safety is regulated by the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 as well as other laws that cover specific types of products - for example, toys, electrical equipment and cosmetics. These laws are technical and can be complex, but traders must ensure that they follow the rules. They are enforced by trading standards.

This guide is designed to give you an overview of key aspects of these safety laws and explain what your rights are if you believe that a product is unsafe.

General Product Safety Regulations 2005

The General Product Safety Regulations 2005 (GPSR) place a duty on producers (for example, manufacturers, brand owners and anyone who repairs or reconditions a product) and distributors (for example, wholesalers, retailers, agents and auctioneers) to supply products, both new and second-hand, that are safe for consumers when used in a normal or reasonably foreseeable way.

Products that are sold, leased, hired, exchanged, given away as prizes or gifts, or provided as part of a delivery of a service (for example, the provision of a hairdryer in a hotel room for guests' use) are all covered by these Regulations.

The following are all important factors when deciding whether a product is safe:

  • the characteristics of a product (how it is made, packaging and any instructions for assembly)
  • the effect of the product on other products it is used with
  • its presentation (labelling, warnings and any instructions for use and disposal)
  • the types of consumers using the product

Product-specific safety regulations cover certain types of products that have their own particular safety requirements - for example, electrical equipment, cosmetics and toys. Where requirements under product-specific regulations overlap those of the GPSR, the specific regulations apply; however, the GPSR act as top-up regulations to cover aspects of safety that may not otherwise be covered. For example, some product-specific regulations only deal with the safety of new products, but the GPSR will apply to those products when they are supplied second-hand.

In contrast to some product-specific safety regulations, the GPSR do not require products to be CE-marked (a mark used to show products meet the requirements of their regulations). In fact, it may be an offence under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 to CE-mark products that do not require it, if the intention is to mislead you.

Electrical equipment

When you are supplied with electrical equipment, you are entitled to expect not only that it works, but that it is safe to use.

The Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016 apply strict controls to domestic electrical equipment that operates within certain voltage limits. It also covers electrical equipment intended for use in the workplace.

Manufacturers and any authorised representatives, importers and distributors all have their parts to play in ensuring electrical equipment is safe.

Broadly speaking, the electrical equipment must be designed and manufactured to meet key safety objectives, which include the following:

  • essential characteristics must be marked on the electrical equipment or on an accompanying document in a way that allows you to use it safely and properly
  • electrical equipment and any components must be made in such a way that they can be safely and properly assembled and connected
  • people and any pets must be protected against hazards, such as physical injury or other harm caused by direct or indirect contact
  • must operate at a safe temperature and be suitably insulated to protect against electric shock
  • must have adequate protection against hazards caused by external influences, such as environmental conditions
  • electrical equipment must meet expected mechanical requirements so that people, pets and property are not endangered
  • any overload must not endanger people, pets or property

All electrical equipment must be safety tested and CE-marked to show that it meets all required safety objectives.

A CE mark looks like this:

Electrical equipment must carry a label that displays the manufacturer or importer's name, registered trade name or trade mark and address, and some form of product identification, such as a type, batch or serial number. Clear and understandable instructions and safety information written in English must be provided.

Importers' and distributors' responsibilities include ensuring the electrical equipment is stored and transported safely.

Traders must ensure that the shape and pins of plug-in devices intended to be connected without the use of a mains lead or plug - such as chargers - conform to the relevant British Standard. Electrical equipment that uses a flexible lead and plug - hairdryers, for example - must have a correctly fitting fused plug that conforms to the relevant British Standard / safety provisions.

Traders who sell second-hand electrical equipment are responsible for ensuring that it meets legal safety requirements.

Cosmetic products

Skin and hair care, make-up, perfumery, oral care, toothpaste, in fact any product that is in contact with the external parts of the human body and is designed to cleanse and protect them, change their appearance and keep them in good condition is classed as a cosmetic product and regulated under EU Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 on cosmetic products.

The Regulation states that a cosmetic product must be 'safe for human health when it is used under normal or reasonably foreseeable conditions of use', taking account of the following:

  • presentation, including appearance, smell and packaging that could easily be confused with foodstuffs
  • labelling
  • instructions for use and disposal
  • any other important information provided by the 'responsible person' (the person who manufactures, imports or distributes cosmetic product in the EU)

Cosmetics must be thoroughly assessed for safety, but it should be noted that there are strict rules that apply to animal testing.

All cosmetic products must be properly labelled in permanent, easily readable and visible lettering, which must include:

  • name and address of the responsible person in the EU
  • weight or volume of the product, unless it is sold loose
  • the country of origin if the cosmetic product is imported
  • durability. If minimum durability is under 30 months, it must display a specific symbol and best-before date. If it will last more than 30 months, it must indicate a time after opening for which the product is safe to use
  • precautions that may need to be observed in use
  • batch number of the cosmetic product so that it can be easily identified
  • the function of the cosmetic product, unless it is clear from its presentation
  • an ingredients list, which must appear on the packaging; if this is not possible, it must appear on a notice, leaflet, label, tag, tape or card accompanying the cosmetic product

Toy safety

Your decision to purchase a toy is usually influenced by what you believe the child will enjoy, whether it is suitable, and of course 'pester power'. Supporting your decision is the clear expectation that the toy is safe to use, and this is covered by the Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011.

So, what are toys? Toys are products designed or intended (whether or not exclusively) for use in play by children under 14 years old. There are products that are not classed as toys, but they will be covered by other safety legislation. They include:

  • playground equipment for public use
  • toy vehicles with combustion engines
  • slings and catapults
  • decorations for festivities and celebrations
  • collectors' items
  • sports equipment
  • bicycles
  • babies' soothers
  • children's fashion accessories that are not for use in play

It is the responsibility of all traders in the supply and distribution chain, from manufacturers to retailers, to ensure that toys do not jeopardise the health and safety of children.

A toy must be designed and manufactured to meet essential safety requirements. This means it must not affect the health and safety of users when it is used as intended or in a way that is foreseeable, bearing in mind the behaviour of children. The ability of the user must be considered, especially in the case of a toy intended for children under 36 months.

Toys that might be dangerous for children under 36 months must carry the warning 'not suitable for children under 36 months' or 'not suitable for children under three years', as well as details of the hazard - for example, 'small parts'. Alternatively, the image below can be used:

0-3 symbol

It is the manufacturer's responsibility to CE-mark the toy to show that it complies with essential safety requirements. You will usually find the CE mark fixed to the toy, on a label fixed to the toy or on the toy's packaging.

Look for the manufacturer's name and address and a batch, serial or model number (which is used for identification purposes) on the toy itself, the packaging or any document that accompanies the toy.

The manufacturer must ensure that a toy has instructions for use, safety information and warnings, as appropriate. Any warnings about hazards and risks of using a toy must be marked in a clear, visible, understandable and legible way on the toy, label or packaging and any instructions for use. Before you buy the toy, check the minimum and maximum child's age it is designed for; manufacturers should provide this information.

It is a retailer's responsibility to make sure the toy is CE-marked, and the manufacturer's details and batch, serial or model number are present, as well as instructions for use, warnings and safety information.

Product recall

If a trader discovers a problem with a product that could affect safety, they must organise a recall of the product. This can be voluntary or the trader can be required to act by trading standards. A recall can be actioned by:

  • contacting purchasers to tell them about the recall, to the extent it is practicable to do so
  • publishing a notice about the risks posed by the product and what the trader is doing to resolve the problem
  • making arrangements for the collection and return, repair, replacement or refund of a product
  • giving information on the make, model and batch number of the affected product

If you have concerns about a product, you can check the trader's website for information and view the list of recalls and safety notices (opens in a new window) on the Chartered Trading Standards Institute website.

I think the product I have bought is unsafe - what should I do?

Stop using the product straight away. Take a photo / video of the product and make a note of the make, batch, serial or model number. Have the instructions, any packaging and proof of purchase to hand.

Contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 for advice on your rights and for your complaint to be referred to trading standards.

Unsafe products - what are my rights?

The Consumer Rights Act 2015 sets out what you are entitled to expect from goods supplied by a trader. These are commonly referred to as your 'statutory rights'. Note that safety is a factor in deciding whether goods are of 'satisfactory quality'. The law also gives you remedies against the trader if goods fail to meet your expectations.

Key rights:

  • the trader must have the right to supply the goods - for example, they must actually own them to legally sell them to you
  • the goods must be of satisfactory quality. The description, price, condition of the goods, fitness for purpose, appearance and finish, safety, durability and freedom from minor defects are all important factors when considering quality. Public statements, such as those in advertising or on labelling, made by the trader, the producer or their representative about the goods, must be accurate and can also be taken into account when deciding whether it is of satisfactory quality
  • if you make a trader aware that you want the goods to be fit for a particular purpose (even if it is something that it is not usually supplied for) then you have the right to expect they are fit for that purpose
  • you have the right to expect that the goods are as described 
  • if you see or examine a sample, then the goods must match the sample 
  • if you see or examine a model, then the goods must match the model 

Key remedies:

  • short-term right to reject the goods and obtain a full refund
  • right to a repair or replacement
  • right to a price reduction or a final right to reject the goods

The 'Sale & supply of goods: your consumer rights' guide gives more information on your rights and which remedy you are entitled to.

Under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, if you have been injured by an unsafe product, you are entitled to take court action against the manufacturer, even if you did not purchase the product yourself.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: November 2017

Please note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text.

For further information please contact the Citizens Advice consumer service, which provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit the Citizens Advice website (opens in a new window) or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 040506.

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The county council is not responsible for this information.