What's in YOUR Cosmetics?

Chemical ingredients found in cosmetics

At present, the cosmetic industry selects from more than 5000 different ingredients. It's no wonder consumers can be perplexed when they see the list. Here are some common cosmetic ingredients and their usual functions (active drug ingredients are not included).

Moisturizers function as a moisture barrier or to attract moisture from the environment:

  • cetyl alcohol (fatty alcohol) - keeps oil and water from separating; also a foam booster
  • dimethicone silicone - skin condition and anti-foam ingredient
  • isopropyl lanolate, myristate, and palmitate
  • lanolin and lanolin alcohols and oil - used in skin and hair conditioners
  • octyl dodecanol - skin conditioner
  • oleic acid (olive oil)
  • panthenol (vitamin B-complex derivative) - hair conditioner
  • stearic acid and stearyl alcohol

Preservatives and antioxidants (including vitamins) prevent product deterioration:

  • trisodium and tetrasodium edetate (EDTA)
  • tocopherol (vitamin E)

Antimicrobials fight bacteria:

  • butyl, propyl, ethyl, and methyl parabens
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • methylisothiazolinone
  • phenoxyethanol (also rose ether fragrance component)
  • quaternium-15

Thickeners and waxes used in stick products such as lipsticks and blushers:

  • candelilla, carnauba, and microcrystalline waxes
  • carbomer and polyethylene thickeners

Solvents used to dilute:

  • butylene glycol and propylene glycol
  • cyclomethicone (volatile silicone)
  • ethanol (alcohol)
  • glycerin

Emulsifiers break up and refine:

  • glyceryl monostearate (also pearlescent agent)
  • lauramide DEA (also foam booster)
  • polysorbates

Color additives:

  • Synthetic Organic colors derived from coal and petroleum sources (not permitted for use around the eye):
    • D&C Red No. 7 Calcium Lake (lakes are dyes that do not dissolve in water)
  • Inorganic pigments - approved for general use in cosmetics, including for the area of the eye:
    • iron oxides
    • mica (iridescent)

Hair Dyes - phenol derivatives used in combination with other chemicals in permanent (two-step) hair dyes:

  • aminophenols

pH adjusters stabilize or adjust acids and bases:

  • ammonium hydroxide in skin peels and hair waving and straightening
  • citric acid - adjusts pH triethanolamine pH adjuster used mostly in transparent soap


  • magnesium aluminum silicate absorbent - anti-caking agent
  • silica (silicon dioxide) - absorbent, anti-caking, abrasive
  • sodium lauryl sulfate - detergent
  • stearic acid - cleansing, emulsifier
  • talc (powdered magnesium silicate) - absorbent anti-caking
  • zinc stearate - used in powder to improve texture, lubricates.

Source: FDA (www.fda.gov)

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Last Editorial Review: 1/13/2004