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Home > Cosmetics: Types and Ingredients > Common Ingredients
Common Ingredients of Cosmetics

The Romans and ancient Egyptians used cosmetics containing mercury. The ingredients of modern cosmetics may also surprise those who use them: lipstick, for example, can contain fish scales - or, rather, the "shimmery" substance of fish scales called "pearl essence". Pearl essence is obtained primarily from herring and is one of many by-products of large-scale commercial fish processing. The red color of many lipsticks is from the dye carmine, made from the crushed bodies of the cochineal insect.

As we are learn more about our skin, the public is becoming more ingredient conscious. Understanding what substances make up a product can be helpful. If you have a known allergy, your dermatologist or allergist can help you determine other related ingredients. It will also help you to understand what makes a product greasy, irritating, acne-flaring, drying and hopefully those that are effective, too! This is not meant to be a complete list of every ingredient used in the industry, but will attempt to cover the most popular individual ingredients and categories that have gained recognition as of late. Use this as a handy reference by which to gain information as you learn more about your skin through our site. This list shall be continually expanded. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FP&L) has set guidelines regulating ingredient listings. Listings begin with the ingredient present in the largest concentration (often times the necessary vehicles water or SD alcohol 40) and moves downward to often times trace elements. The vehicle is responsible to carry the other ingredients, creating the actual suspension, so just because water may potentially make up most of a product, it is usually for good reason.

If the cosmetic also acts as a drug, then the drug is listed prior to all of the cosmetic ingredients regardless of its concentration. Trade secrets do not need to disclose the combination of "actives" but the company must submit an application to the FDA in order to list this term and avoid disclosing the ingredients on the label.

Colors are typically listed last.
Confusion abounds when ingredients have more than 1 name, botanical equivalent names and more than 1 molecular variation. Then, the ingredient may be listed in a multitude of ways. Many times the actual active ingredient(s) may be listed by itself. This ingredient is what does the actual work in a product. That does not mean it is the ingredient present in the highest concentration. Take sunscreen for example. Titanium dioxide may be listed as the active ingredient. Although titanium dioxide may not be present in the greatest percent concentration, it is what makes the product screen the suns rays. So it becomes listed first as the active ingredient. The other inactive ingredients are present to help create the vehicle and possibly enhance its effectiveness.

Any ingredient present under 1% concentration may be listed in any order as long as it is listed after all of the other ingredients present at or above 1%. Only problem with this is that there is no guideline to disclose where the 1% cut off exists on the label!

Common Ingredients
an acetic acid salt; the word that follows or precedes acetate on an ingredient list determines the function.

AcetoneAcetone: solvent commonly used in fingernail polish removers and toners; can be drying and irritating depending on concentration. Non-acne forming.

Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol: helps soften skin and has anti-allergenic tendencies; is highly prone to comedogenicity (causes blackheads and/or whiteheads)-this is an example of an alcohol that is not drying.

Acrylates Copolymer: active ingredient in an oil-absorbing gel, like Clinac O.C.

Acrylates/Octylpropenamide Copolymer: creates a water-repelling basis for cosmetics claiming water-proof properties.

Alcohol SD-40: sometimes listed as SD Alcohol 40 and synomymous with alcohol SDA-40, it is a high grade purified cosmetic alcohol. Evaporates instantly, so it is used as a vehicle to transport important ingredients to the skins surface and then leave them there; gentler to the skin than ethyl (rubbing) alcohol. May help kill bacteria.

Algae/Seaweed Extract: an emollient, restoring moisture content to skin; claims to have antioxidant properties.

Allantoin: a botanical thought to have calming properties to the skin that help resolve irritation.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid: an active ingredient derived from fruit acids. Helps exfoliate the top layers of the epidermis: promotes moisture restoration and helps penetration of other ingredients; highly sought after for use in anti-aging and bleaching skin care products. May irritate the skin but do not advance skin aging. Buffering the pH helps make them less irritating to the skin. AHAs include: citric acid (citrus fruits), glycolic acid (sugar cane), lactic acid (milk), and the less common AHAs used in cosmetics malic acid (apples) and tartaric acid (wine). AHAs increase sun sensitivity due to their exfoliant behavior.

Alpha Lipoic Acid: An antioxidant; is both water and fat soluble so it can go to many areas of a cell.

AlumAlum: usually in crystal or powder form; has strong astringent properties; used in stypic sticks, popular with men who often nick themselves shaving.

Ascorbic Acid: vitamin C; used as an antioxidant in its L-ascorbic acid form, can have skin lightening effect in certain preparations, is important to keeping as well as rebuilding healthy collagen fibers.

Ascorbyl Palmitate: preservative with antioxidant properties: its presence helps make possible the blending of vitamins A, C, and D into a suspension.

Beeswax: waxy component in many skin cares products; provides moisture as well as a barrier mechanism. Allows for oil and water blending (emulsion).

Benzoyl Peroxide: antibacterial agent kills p. acnes, the germ responsible for acne flares. Can be drying and/or irritating. Some reports of benzoyl peroxide skin allergies. Available in both prescription and OTC forms ranging from 2 -10%.

Beta Hydroxy Acid: new term for salicylic acid, a long-term ingredient used for exfoliation of dry skin as well as for acne therapy.

Boric Acid: used as a preservative to prevent yeast overgrowth. While an antiseptic agent, it is out of favor for use in skin care products due to its irritancy potential.

Caffeine: used to alleviate puffiness under eyes.

Camphor: a cooling agent used to help alleviate itching and irritation in many skin care and medicated products.

Carbomers (934, 940, 941, 980, 981): stabilize and thicken products.

Carmine: red pigment; found in many mascaras, and it can be irritating.

Caviar (Roe Extract): Fish eggs high in mineral and vitamin content (B1, 2,6, as well as A,E & D). Promoted as useful for improving the health and appearance of maturing skin.

Cellulose: plant matter used to as a thickener, also helps suspend oil and water formulations.

Ceramides: Epidermal-hydrating agent; expensive due to its scarcity.

Ceteareth: cetearyl and stearyl alcohols combined for use as a lubricant.

Cetyl Alcohol: lubricant and helps emulsify oil and water formulations. Is neither non- irritating nor drying and is not related to isopropyl alcohol. Not supposed to be acne forming.

Collagen: the main supporting fiber located within the dermis, gives strength and provides structure. You cannot replace lost collagen by applying it to your skin as it is incapable of penetration, but topical collagen is able to moisturize and hydrate by holding many times its own weight in water

Cyclic Acid: a new term for Hyaluronic Acid: a strong hydrating complex holds 1000 times the water in skin.

Cyclomethicone: form of silicone; gives products a smooth texture without blocking pores.

Dimethicone: also a form of silcone; gives slip and glide to products: has been used in some scar therapies.

EDTA: preservative: potential for causing contact dermatitis.

Elastin: a fiber within the dermis similar to collagen gives support and "snap" to the skin. In topicals, it cannot penetrate the skin, but is great for protecting against moisture loss.

Ellagic AcidEllagic Acid: this naturally occurring ingredient helps to inhibit the formation of sun and age spots.

Ethyl Alcohol: aka rubbing alcohol or ethanol; antibacterial function; usually too strong for regular use in cosmetics.

Glycerin: hydrates and provides a skin barrier; allows topical agents to go on very smoothly; a concern is clogging of pores when present in high concentrations.

Glycine: amino acid vital to collagen composition and production.

Glycogen: building block of sugar acts as a conditioner.

Glycolic Acid: an alpha hydroxy acid helpful for acne-prone skin, resolves dry skin conditions; used in chemical peels as well as to help reduce the appearance of pores and wrinkles; exfoliates excess flaking or crusty skin.

Glycol Stearate: thickening agent helps give products a luminescent or opalescent appearance.

Grape Seed Extract: a botanical extract shown to be an effective antioxidant

Green Tea Extract: shown to be a powerful antioxidant and is found in Replenix.

Hyaluronic Acid: lately referred to as a "cyclic acid"; can hold 1000 times its own weight in water, great hydrator as used in Cellex-C Hydra 5 B-Complex and SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel; also helps to draw in "active" ingredients deeper into the skin.

Hydroquinone: skin pigment lightening agent; a maximum of 2% may be obtained over the counter; higher concentrations available by prescription.

Isopropyl AlcoholIsopropyl Alcohol: vehicle with antibacterial properites; drying to the skin especially in higher concentrations.

Isopropyl Isostearate: emollient.

Isopropyl Palmitate: emollient helps moisturize skin. No allergic potential although is derived from palm and/or coconut oils. Comedogenic in nature.

Isostearic Acid: fatty acid that forms film on skin.

Kaolin (China Clay): used in oil-absorbing powders and masques; highly absorbent.

Kojic Acid: skin lightener; touted as a bleaching agent for ethnic skin.

Lactic Acid: alpha hydroxy acid used in dermatology to hydrate and smooth dry, flaking skin. May occasionally be used in higher concentrations (well above 12% medical grade) as a chemical peel.

Lanolin: emollient and moisturizer; obtained from sheep; a sensitizer like other wool derivatives, in eczema-prone individuals

Lecithin: a water-attracting agent used in products to help hydrate the skin and improve the texture and ease of spread onto the skin.

L-Ergothioneine: naturally occurring antioxidant.

Licorice Extract: skin lightener; deemed as more potent than kojic acid or vitamin C for this function.

Linoleic Acid: used to create emulsions; its EFA origins help to hydrate dry, parched skin. Cosmetic vernacular refers to it as Vitamin F.

Lysine amino acid incorporated to condition skin.

Octyl Methoxycinnamate: FDA approved chemical sunscreen with contact dermatitis potential in some individuals. Related to Balsum of Peru with cross-reactions possible for those with contact dermatitis to either agent.

Octyl Palmitate: allows hydration and works as solvents without giving skin a greasy texture.

Octyl Salicylate: Commonly incorporated into sunscreens for its antibacterial abilities and helps prevent product from turning rancid.

Oxybenzone: FDA approved UVA absorbing chemical sunscreen ingredient.

Paba (Para-Aminobenzoic Acid): UVB absorber used in sunscreens during the 1970s; became a frequent cause of contact dermatitis, therefore it is now out of favor.

PanthenolPanthenol: a B vitamin (B5), works as a humectant (holds water in the skin). May promote healing.

Parabens: preservatives; deemed safe and unlikely to irritate the skin. Widely used for cosmetics; various forms will be listed with the ingredient usually ending in "-paraben", as in the following word (i.e. methyl paraben).

Petrolatum: heavy bland base, most commonly known for its use in Vaseline; good for sensitive skin however it is occlusive and can cause plugging of the pores and acne in prone individuals.

Polybutene: helps make liquids texturally viscous.

Poly Hydroxy Acid: PHA, derived from the buds of fruit trees, claims to be gentler yet as effective as AHAs; still debatable.

Proline: amino acid vital to the composition and production collagen.

Propylene Glycol: Vehicle for cosmetic solutions; excellent for hydrating dry skins but can act as a contact dermatitis sensitizer in prone individuals.

Resveratrol: antioxidant, which supports and protects collagen.

Retinol: a derivative of vitamin A; fat soluble; depending upon concentration, estimated to be approximately 10 times less effective than tretinoin.

Retinyl Palmitate: (also known as Vitamin A Palmitate); considered a more stable alternative to retinal for normalizing the skins texture and helping smooth out fine lines. Is the ester of retinol combined with palmitic acid; thought to be less irritating than retinol.

Retinyl Palmitate Polypeptide: water soluble formulation of Vitamin A.

Rose Hips: botanical extract of rose petals found to have high concentrations of vitamin C.

Salicylic Acid: classified as a BHA (beta hydroxy acid); medically used as an exfolliant and debriding agent. Cosmetically used in some chemical peels and to reduce oiliness, acne and the appearance of fine lines.

Silica: highly oil absorbant.

Silcone: protects the skin and creates a sheen. Thought to be helpful in reducing the appearnce of hypertrophic scars.

Silk Powder: incorporated into cosmetic powders to help absorb skin moisture and oils.

Silk Proteins: prevents dehydration; commonly found in eye rejuvenation creams.

Sodium Bicarbonate: neutralizes acid, making products less irritating; commonly known as baking soda.

Sodium Borate: preservative; related to boric acid; potential irritant. 

Sorbic Acid: preservative; primarily protects product from yeast overgrowth.

Sorbitol: sugar-based ingredient; pulls water by osmosis from the largest source.

Typically this is the air, so it helps hydrate skin. In arid conditions, however, water will be pulled out of the skin, resulting in dehydration.

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