Saturday, May 2, 2009Learning to read labels

What is in a cosmetic product?


In newspapers or in ads, a cosmetic product is generally seen only as a mix of active ingredients. These ingredients are the source of its efficiency. They are pushed forward to point out the interest of a formula or what is new in it; their description is the major point in leaflets; their function and their qualities are emphasized on labels and are sold … as if they were the only ingredients in the product. In fact, a formula is far more than that. Even if active ingredients are present, very often they come in low percentages, in the 2% to 3% range, sometimes even less! Therefore, there is room for … all the rest! This "rest"  is applied every single day, sometimes several times a day, on our skins, and is not always harmless.

Reading time
~ 16 minutes

Indeed, this "rest", in fact, by large the main part of the cosmetic product by weight, is not that insignificant. First, considering its quantitative importance; second, it is very often a major factor for the harmlessness and the efficiency of the product. In this "rest", there are the most criticized ingredients, as well as the most recommended ones. This "rest" allows for the classification as a "conventional" product or as a "natural" product; this "rest" may be synthetic, chemical or vegetable. This "rest" makes for the specificity of a cosmetic product , as, quite often, more than 90% of the product … are the rest! Hence, it is a major reason to focus on it!

Sometimes called an excipient (a substance in which the active ingredients are mixed to enhance their action), it may have a different aspect depending on the galenic form of the product.


The basis of an emulsion is a mix of water and fats . The guess is that 90% of the cosmetics are emulsions : creams, gels, milks, lotions, exfoliating cares, masks, foundations, tooth-pastes … all are emulsions . Though their uses are very different, their excipients come with similar formulae.

It is listed as " Aqua " in the list of ingredients and may make up to a half, even three quarters, of a product. Water may be spring water, thermal water, demineralized, distilled, produced by osmosis … or, more mundanely … tap water. Any kind of water may be used in cosmetic products , as far as it meets all the suitable regulations dealing with its purity and its potability.
Water is seen as a full-fledged ingredient. A fully neutral basis, nevertheless, it may be considered as an active ingredient, when it gives specific qualities, such as thermal waters (with their minerals) or flower waters (with their vegetable extracts).
It is classified as a natural ingredient, but can never be said to be organic.


It is the second most important ingredient in emulsions , which may come as oils, butters or waxes. The cosmetic industry uses four kinds of fats:
Mineral oils and waxes , which are derived from hydrocarbons (produced by the petrochemical industry).
Silicones c, which are synthetic molecules based on silicon and oxygen and their derivatives.
Vegetable oils : They are a lot, and come from fruit, nuts, beans, seeds, stones, cereals, in fact, everything vegetable oils may be extracted from.
Animal fats : For cosmetic application, the raw materials are extracted from dead animals.

Depending on their origin, fats have different qualities (and potential undesirable effects ). For our skins, our health or the environment, the consequences may be vastly different! Further, every one of these categories is the subject of controversy, for one reason or another.


Mixing fats (oils and waxes) and water only does not make it possible to get a homogeneous mix, as these two kinds of chemicals are not miscible, i.e. they never mix. Think of a home-made salad dressing: the oil goes down to the bottom of the can, vinegar being on top of the oil layer. There are two different layers. What does make marketed salad dressing homogeneous and creamy? An emulsifier . As per the pertaining official definition, it is an ingredient which eases a full mix of non-miscible liquids by a modification of the interfacial tensions. No emulsion can exist without. This is true also for beauty and hygiene products.

Many emulsifiers are available for cosmetic applications. Some may be natural (the lecithin of egg’s yolk, for instance, often used in home-made mayonnaise, is also used in cosmetics …), while many are synthetic: this includes many ethoxylated molecules.


Emulsifiers are very often used in conjunction with surfactants ; surfactants lower the surface tension of the liquid, making it easy to get an even layer of product, for instance. They are soluble both in water and oils, adding a foaming or cleaning action (this is why they are very common in shampoos and shower gels). Sometimes they are at the same time antistatic or film-forming , they modify the viscosity, they are hydrotropes (increasing the solubility of a substance in water). Furthermore, very often they are also good emulsifiers

As for emulsifiers , though some surfactants are natural, many are synthesized by ethoxylation , and not that harmless.

Texturing agents

Anti caking, film-forming , gelling agents, opacifiers, solvents, emulsion stabilizers, humectants , emollients …: all these agents help to improve the consistency of a product and give a better feeling to the user when applied on skin. Once again, the "family" is large; substances may be very different, and their content may be low of high. Some of them are harmless, other ones may be more of a concern …


Comprising water plus fats , add the heat and the moisture of a bath room, daily exposed to air when used, an emulsion is the ideal nest for germs, bacteria and fungi. The users’ sanitary safety requires using preservatives , antibacterials and/or antifungicals , antiseptic agents … which will prevent microbes’ contamination and development.

Almost all preservatives are synthetic, including those used in "natural" or "organic" cosmetics. It is also a class of ingredients often linked to irritations and allergies. Many are those also suspected of being more or less harmful to humans.


Make-up is the kind of product in which they have a major role, but they are used in a large part of  hygiene and care products. When a shampoo is "apple-green", when a shower gel is orange or the cream is a beautiful soft pink, never this is due a green apple extract, an orange peel extract or a rose petal extract! Obviously, the red or blues stripes in a toothpaste …

Colourants used in cosmetics are mainly mineral pigments (Iron Oxides, Mica , Lazurite …) or synthetic molecules, the azoic dyes being a concern for health.


To be known: raw materials used in cosmetics, quite often, do not smell … good! Even a raw vegetable oil may smell a bit "hard" … what, then, about a synthetic or chemical substance … Very easy, if we were given these substances as they are, we would pull a face and say, "no, thank you".  That is why almost all the cosmetics come with a perfume.
This may be done using one or several essential oils , which may be there also as active ingredients. It may be done using synthetic molecules.

Nevertheless, keep in mind that, regarding fragrances , the situation is not that simple. Considering the allergenic effect of many essential oils and the potential harmfulness of synthetic molecules and their solvents, perfumes are indeed the Nbr 1 category of products for their undesirable effects when used! Further, they are contraindicated for very young children or pregnant women.

Active ingredients

No, no, they are not left aside, for sure! Though they are never the most important ingredients by weight, even if one may be dubious about their action … sometimes. Indeed, an active ingredient may be almost everything (but we did not write: anything …).

A vegetable oil used as an excipient in a care cream may also be considered as an active ingredient, thanks to its fatty acids, vitamins and its moisturizing effect. A plant extract may be qualified as an active ingredient, as could be a synthetic molecule. A preservative may even be qualified as an active ingredient if it is also an antibacterial agent in an anti acne cream … And what about an essential oil : shall it be classified as a fragrance , as a preservative if it is antibacterial or as a purifying agent?
Some cosmetics are claimed as being made of 100% of active ingredients, due to their multifaceted ingredients. Other ones claim to have a neutral excipient and focus on the one active ingredient added in the formula, or on a synergy between two or three ingredients.

Is there enough … or so few?
In this area, the percentage figure matters. An active ingredient must be in the right concentration to give the looked-for effect. Some ingredients shall be in large quantities to be efficient ( caffeine in slimming products, for instance), when others, such as the soothing Bisabolol , are better when only at a rate of one to two percent in the finished product. For others, the action is widely dependent on the concentration: Salicylic Acid is a preservative at less than 0.5%, but is keratolytic at higher levels.

Therefore, the fact that an ingredient is used in a product is not enough in itself to anticipate its action. The percentage figure is not that often seen on labels; nevertheless, when the manufacturer gives it, even if not mandatory, this may be understood as out of concern for transparency for the consumer (it is also a marketing action, that is true, but as far as the information is available …).

Finally, the action of an active ingredient may be enhanced or counter-balanced by the rest of the formula. A substance used to balance oily skins will be far less useful if it is added to a basis high in occlusive mineral oils, which lead to black heads, for instance…

Oils and balms

A second kind of current cosmetics: mixes of oils or butters. They are mainly serums for the face or massage balms. Their formulae are quite close to each other. The main advantage is that they are water-free and, as a favourable consequence, they do not need many of the ingredients that shall be used in emulsions .

Oils and butters
As always for cosmetics, these fats may be of mineral, synthetic, vegetable or animal origin. Oils are used in serums , while butters ( Shea Butter , Cocoa Butter, Mango Butter …) or waxes, thicker substances, are used in balms.

No water means no need for any preservative . Stabilizing these products means to prevent them from the attacks by the ambient air and the light, either using an opaque and airtight can (an earthenware bottle with a measuring cap-like cap, an airless bottle …), and/or, if a very thick product prevents using such systems, by adding antioxidants to stop the product from going rancid.

Circa three hundreds and fifty substances are available to the cosmetic industry as an antioxidant. Some vegetable extracts are available, but the vitamins E ( Tocopherol ) or C (Ascorbic Acid), either as natural or synthetic compounds, are widely used. Other synthetic molecules are employed, such as the BHT or the gallate family, even if major concerns arise about their effect on health.

What about the rest of the formula?
As for any cosmetics, oils and balms may comprise colourants and perfumes, some emulsifiers or texturing agents, though in far lower number and quantities than in emulsions .
They may also contain some active ingredients, soothing , anti-ageing, regenerating, matte, sebum production balancing, toning … depending on the claims for the products.


Blush, eye make-up, fluffy or compact powder, talc … : this third kind of product deals with a small area of the cosmetic products , make-up products. Designed for very specific applications, they have also very specific formulae, their dryness making them a bit apart in the cosmetic world.

Obviously, they are the main ingredient in formulae. Talc , Mica , Diatomaceous Earth, Silica, Silk or Rice powders, Kaolin, Magnesium Stearate … are the main sources. They are almost all natural, often as minerals.

As a general rule, they are harmless. Inhaling some of them (further, in large quantities) may be harmful to the respiratory tract; nevertheless, with make-up products, the risk, though real in plants, seems negligible. However, it is advisable not to spray talc close to babies’ noses.

Texturing agents
Some emollients to smoothen the contact of the powder with the skin, anti-caking agents to make it fluid, binders to retain its texture, film-forming agents for a more even application if necessary …: the additives are few, and used for the same qualities they have in the other kinds of products.


Compact powders may be replaced by a bit of oils, which are then both binders and active ingredients that help to keep the hydration of the skin. The oils are those mentioned previously, and they generally come with antioxidants, as in serums and balms.

What about the rest of the formula?
No water in these products. That means no preservative , most often. Nevertheless, some powders contain preservatives : one may wonder, as their usefulness is dubious, while their potentially detrimental effects are there.

On the other hand, quite often, powders are perfumed; this is a cause for concern. Furthermore, as they are used as make-up, impossible to think of them without a wide spectrum of colours. Colourants are the same as those used in other products, except for their higher number and the specific mixes that produce colours and nuances unmatchable otherwise. Nevertheless, some colourants raise the same concerns about their potential harmfulness.

© 2009- 2020  CosmeticOBS

Learning to read labelsOther articles