What Ingredients Are in Cosmetics?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not need to approve most cosmetic ingredients before they are sold to consumers. But by law, cosmetics must be safe.
Under the FDA’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), any retail product advertised to consumers in a store, online, or in-person must list each ingredient. Ingredients will usually appear in order from highest to lowest amount. The FPLA also requires an ingredient’s common or usual name. For example, instead of “aqua” or “parfum,” the product should list “water” or “fragrance.” Substitute names can be listed in parentheses.1,2
Common cosmetic ingredients
What ingredients are usually in cosmetics? Here some ingredients that people often ask about:3-9
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
AHAs are used to smooth fine lines and wrinkles. They may also clear blocked pores and make skin appear to “glow.” Glycolic acid and lactic acid are 2 common AHAs. AHAs can irritate your skin or make it more sensitive to the sun. Be sure to wear sunscreen.
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)
Like AHAs, BHAs smooth out fine lines and wrinkles. But they are thought to cause less skin discomfort. You should still wear sunscreen and test out BHA products on a small patch of skin. Salicylic acid is a BHA commonly used in cosmetics.
DEA and related ingredients work to keep other cosmetic ingredients from separating. They also make soaps or shampoos foam and can balance a product’s acidity. A 1998 study linked DEA to cancer in lab animals, but it does not appear to harm humans. Today, cosmetic makers use DEA much less often.
The FDA does not require separate fragrance ingredients to be listed on a product label. But you will find them listed anyway in many products like perfume, aftershave, shampoo, shower gel, and more. If you are sensitive or allergic to fragrance, look for products that are labeled “fragrance-free.”
Around 1 to 6 percent of people are allergic to latex. It can cause skin irritation, rashes, and breathing problems. Bodypaint, stage makeup, hair glue, and eyelash glue all commonly have latex. Avoid these products if you are allergic.
Makeup, lotion, hair products, and shaving products contain parabens. They are used to stop the growth of bacteria and mold. You will find parabens listed as “methylparaben,” “propylparaben,” “butylparaben,” and “ethylparaben.”
The most common phthalate used in cosmetics is diethylphthalate (DEP). DEP helps to preserve fragrances. The impact of phthalates on human health is unclear.
Talc is a natural mineral used in talcum powder after a crushing and refining process. You will find it in body and face powders. It helps to wick away moisture. Studies dating back to the 1960s show a possible link between talc and ovarian cancer, but results are mixed.
Banned and restricted cosmetic ingredients
If an ingredient can harm you when used according to label directions or in a familiar way, then the FDA bans its use.
Some ingredients may raise your risk of cancer, skin irritation, and other conditions. Here is a list of things the FDA has banned or restricted for use in cosmetics:10
- Chlorofluorocarbon propellants
- Halogenated salicylanilides (di-, tri-, and metabromsalan, and tetrachlorosalicylanilide)
- Mercury compounds
- Methylene chloride
- Prohibited cattle materials
- Vinyl chloride
- Zirconium-containing complexes
Where to find an ingredient list
Most of the time, you will find a list of cosmetic ingredients on the package label. Companies may also publish ingredients on their website, or you can request them by mail. Products shared as free samples, for professional use, or use by groups like schools or hospitals are not required to have an ingredient list.2
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