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In this week’s episode Perry and I talk about the Think Dirty app that claims to help you identity dangerous ingredients in your cosmetics. Plus another game of Beauty Science or Bullsh*t!

Click below to play Episode 38 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Beauty Science or Bull Sh*t – a special bacteria-based episode

Another special themed version – this time it’s about bacteria. Guess which of the following 3 beauty science headlines are fake? (2 are real, one is made up.)

  1. Your nasal bacteria may predict if you’ll get a skin infection.
  2. Rural bacteria can help improve city dwellers’ health
  3. Bacteria unique to house pets have been found as a contaminant in cosmetics

 Beauty Science News

Would you wash yourself with bacteria?
You rinse your skin with water and then apply a live bacteria mist to keep your body clean. Theoretically the good bacteria colonize your skin and prevent the bad bacteria from growing. The chairman of the company that makes this products only uses soap once or twice a month.

The “Think Dirty” App shows which products have toxic chemicals
This “Think Dirty app uses data from scientific studies conducted by non-profit organizations and government agencies to fill in some of the blanks from the labels of cosmetic products.

This article is a bit one-sided, to say the least. If you really pay attention to the scientific literature you’ll see that cosmetic ingredients such as these are not likely to cause you much harm. You’re WAY more likely to get cancer from drinking alcohol, smoking, or just hanging out in the sun.

Here are a couple of quick rebuttals for those of you who are interested in a balanced discussion:

In all these cases the dose makes the poison. At high levels (as in some hair straighteners) formaldehyde is dangerous but when released at very low levels from preservatives it is not an issue.

The amount of lead in lipstick is VERY small, not much of it is ingested, the amount that is ingested is not absorbed well by your body, and the amount that is absorbed is processed and excreted. Your body can get rid of far more lead than you consume from lipstick. (Instead you should worry about lead paint or contaminated soil instead.)

The evidence seems clear that certain (but not all) phthalates pose a health hazard. But does that hazard mean there’s a risk involved in using phthalates in cosmetics? (Remember that the risk is a function of the hazard AND the degree of exposure.) Both the FDA in the US and the SCCP in EU agree that there’s no clear data that the use of these ingredients in cosmetics pose a measurable hazard to consumers. The FDA is continuing to monitor the situation while the EU has taken a more conservative approach and decided to limit the use of some phthalates to only trace levels. From a regulatory perspective, the EU now has three categories for phthalates:
▪ Accepted phthalates: This one is considered safe for use in cosmetics: DEP
▪ Banned phthalates: These are banned from being added to cosmetics but are allowable as “trace contaminants” up to 100 ppm: DEHP, DBP and BBP.
▪ Unregulated phthalates: These have not been regulated in EU but given their low usage (at least in perfumes) there is no quantifiable risk to consumers: DMP, DIBP, DCHP, DINP and DIDP.

The most comprehensive study was published in 2011 which determined that Methylparaben and Ethylparaben were safe when used at approved levels (0.4% individually & 0.8% combined). Since these are the two most commonly used parabens cosmetic chemists still have good formulation options. They took some more time to look at butylparaben and propylparaben. And the latest SCCS opinion…these are safe when used at the suggested concentrations of 0.19% or less.

Yes, these surfactants can be drying to skin – but so is soap! And the manufactures of these ingredients have limited the trace levels 1,4-Dioxane so there is no need for concern.

The point is that toxicology of cosmetic ingredients is a VERY complicated subject, even for industry veterans like us. To think that all that information can be distilled down to a simple app is naive and unproductive.

Olfactory exposure to men stresses out lab animals
Are lab animals really stressed out by the scent of “gonadally intact” men? What does this mean for all the scientific research done on rats and mice?

Crazy about caffeinated shaving cream
I spotted an annoying new product from The Pacific Shaving Company. It’s caffeinated shaving cream! Here’s what they say about it: “Actually, when it comes to caffeine, the women are ahead of the men. Caffeine is already a “go-to” ingredient in everything from eye creams and anti-aging lotions to concealers and moisturizers. It just hasn’t found its way into the shaving world – until now!

And the reason this is so important to include in skin care is that “It can penetrate skin and absorb into your blood: Start your morning with a kick!”

The real kicker is that if you look at the kinetics of percutaneous caffeine absorption you’ll see that there’s no way this could work.

The diffusion rate for caffeine through human skin is 2.2 x 10-6 grams per centimeter squared of skin, per hour.

So the area of your face that gets shaved is about 100 square centimeters?

That means your skin could absorb up to about 0.2 mg caffeine/hour

Do you know how many mg of caffeine are in a cup of coffee? 100-200.

So for your skin to absorb enough caffeine to “kick start” your morning you’d have to leave this shaving cream on your face for about 1000 hours. That’s assuming it’s even dosed appropriately.

Unpleasant odors makes you more conservative
Here’s a study that says exposure to a disgusting odor makes you more politically conservative (on subjects like sex and gay marriage.)

Scientists develop way of making UV protection visible
Even though we don’t understand this very well we like this idea of a device that can predict how much sunscreen you need based on the amount of UV radiation that you’re exposed to.

More feminine looking women are more likely to win political office
Perry’s on a political roll today and he thinks that wearing cosmetics can help you win elections.


LIL buy it now button

Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.

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Understanding cosmetic ingredient names

I must confess. One of my favorite things about being a chemist is getting to say long words and knowing what they mean. I loved learning the IUPAC system for naming chemicals.

That’s why I found ingredient lists on shampoos & conditioners baffling. I didn’t know what most of the chemicals were. They were similar to IUPAC terms, but not quite. It turns out that the cosmetic industry doesn’t use the IUPAC naming system. Instead, they follow their own system as laid out in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) dictionary. This volume is produced by the main cosmetic industry trade group called the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC, formerly the CTFA but we’ll save that for another time).

List of Ingredients

The first thing to know about cosmetic ingredients is the ingredient list. In the United States, every personal care and cosmetic product is supposed to have their ingredients listed. In the business, we called it the LOI (list of ingredients). Any ingredient above 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration (by weight). At 1% or below, the ingredients can be listed in any order. Typically, preservatives and dyes are listed at the end. In a future post, we’ll show how this labeling requirement can help you formulate new products.

Any ingredient above 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration (by weight).

To be proper, companies are supposed to follow the naming conventions as laid out in the INCI.

Cosmetic Ingredient Naming Conventions

While many chemical names in the INCI seem arbitrary, there are some standard rules. The following will help you make heads or tails out of the ingredients on most LOIs. We can’t list all the conventions here, but we’ll point out the major ones and give examples.

Common Names

When they first came up with the INCI (originally called the CTFA Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary) in 1973, many cosmetic ingredients already had names. These common names were incorporated into the dictionary even though they didn’t follow any specific naming rules. Therefore, we use Glycerin instead of the more accurate Glycerol and Menthol instead of (1R, 2S, 5R)-2-isopropyl-5-methylcyclohexanol. Common names are also used for various natural ingredients like Lanolin and Beeswax.

Stem Names

Probably the most important thing to learn about naming cosmetic ingredients is to memorize this list of hydrocarbon stem names. It’s a bit different than the IUPAC.

So, if you have a 16-carbon alcohol, you call it Cetyl Alcohol instead of Hexadecanol. For an 18-carbon acid, you would use Stearic Acid instead of Ocatdecanoic acid.


You’ll run into names like Cocamidopropyl Betaine that don’t match any of the stem names. This is because the raw material uses coconut oil as a starting raw material. In these cases, you use an abbreviation of that starting material. Other ones you might see include Palm Kernel oil, Soybean oil and Sunflower oil. In a future post, we’ll show the fatty acid distribution of these materials.


The INCI tries to follow established conventions from other systems. For example, when you want to name an ether, you take the stem names from both fatty acids and add the term ether. Thus, a molecule made with a 14-carbon and 16-carbon chains connected by an oxygen would be called Cetyl Myristyl Ether. An ester of the same molecules would be Cetyl Myristate.

Nitrogen Containing

Hydrocarbons that contain nitrogen are amides and have the phrase included in their name. Therefore, Lauramide is used to describe a 12-Carbon molecule (Lauryl) that has a NH2 group on its end. If the Nitrogen has other hydrocarbons attached, those are also named. So, Lauramide DEA would be that same 12-Carbon molecule attached to a Nitrogen which also has Ethyl groups attached to it. When these Nitrogen containing compounds are turned into salts, the suffix “-monium” is added. So, a 16-Carbon attached to a Nitrogen with three methyl groups is Cetrimonium Chloride.


A variety of conventions are used to name polymers. For Nitrogen containing polymers, the term “Polyquaternium” is used. There is also a number associated with the ingredient but it doesn’t refer to anything chemically. It just happens to be the order in which the material was registered.

Other polymers use common abbreviations. PEG is Polyethylene Glycol. PPG is Polypropylene Glycol, etc. Then a number is included to refer to the moles of ethoxylation in the polymer.


For silicone containing materials, terms like Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone and amodimethicone are used. Whenever you see some form of these words in a chemical name, you know there is some silicone in it.


Ten years ago, you used to see the abbreviation FD&C in front of many chemical colorants. Today, however, the INCI has adopted a simplified method for naming colors. They just list the color followed by a number (e.g. Yellow 5). This doesn’t tell you anything about the chemical composition but you can get the structure by looking it up in the INCI. An alternative naming system is the EU one in which each colorant is assigned a 5-digit chemical index (CI) number. Yellow 5 in the EU is called CI 19140.

Miscellaneous Rules

There are many other rules that you’ll have to learn over time. To give you a flavor here are a few more.

  1. Water is just called Water. (Not deionized or purified or anything else. Just water)
  2. Fragrance is called Fragrance no matter what compounds are used to make it. This is changing but for now, it’s correct.
  3. Botanicals use the Latin name of the plant or part plus the term Extract. So, if you use an ingredient taken from the leaf of a lemon, the ingredient is called Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Leaf Extract.


The naming of raw materials in cosmetics share some characteristics with the IUPAC system used in Organic Chemistry. However, there are many differences and for some things it is impossible to determine the chemical structure from just the name. For more information, your best bet is to go to your company’s library (or your city’s) and take a look at the latest version of the INCI.

Do you have any ingredient naming questions? Leave a comment below and let us know.


Watermelon and CoQ10 facial cream – look at the label

Watermelon & CoQ10 Facial Cream with Caffeine SPF 20 is certainly a mouthful and it’s one of the beauty best sellers on Amazon. Is it worth $38? Let’s look at the label.

To the skeptical eye of a cosmetic chemist, this product is a bit of mess (at least as it’s portrayed on Amazon.com) Let’s look at some of the more interesting claims for the product then we’ll see what we can learn from the ingredient list.


  • 100% Natural and Organic
  • Smooths fine lines and wrinkles
  • Protects skin from UVA and UVB
  • Contains watermelon which repairs DNA damage by 25%.
  • It is also undiluted with water.
  • Revolutionary patent pending formula
  • Based on pure aloe juices
  • Will help brighten and revive your skin.

Ingredients compared to claims

If you dissect the ingredient list (see below) you’ll notice several inconsistent statements that appear to be written to mislead the consumer.

  • Aloe gel, which is the first ingredient, primarily consists of water. So how can the product be “undiluted with water?”
  • The Aloe gel is “based on “alginate from seaweed and irish moss extract.” How is that “pure aloe juices?” That doesn’t even make sense!
  • There’s no active sunscreen listed despite the fact that the product claims to provide an SPF of 20.
  • The components of the “Antioxidant Preservative Complex TM” are not listed which is illegal according to US labeling laws.
  • There are no oil phase ingredients or emulsifiers listed which means this product can’t be a true moisturizing cream

Watermelon & CoQ10 Facial Cream ingredients

**Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe) Aloe Vera Gel (based on organic alginate from seaweed and Irish moss extract), (Revita10 Super Anti-Aging ComplexTM including: Citrullus Lanatus (Watermelon) Seed Oil, CoQ10, Coffea arabica (Green Coffee) Oil, and Citrullus Lanatus (Watermelon) Seed Extract and Simmondsia chinens (Jojoba) Proteins), Alpha Hydroxy Acids (derived from organic fruit-Lactic, Tartaric, and Citric), Vegetable Glycerin, Vitamin C, Organic Extracts of *Vaccinium myrtillus(Bilberry), *Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon), *Saccharum Officinarum (Sugar Cane), Acer Saccharinum (Sugar Maple), *Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange), Essential Oils of *Mandarin Red, *Citrus Pectin, Antioxidant Complex PreservativeTM

The Beauty Brains bottom line

If you’re going to spend $38 for 1 ounce of product you should feel confident that the company is providing you with a quality product. Based on the inconsistencies between the claims and the ingredients we’d be very suspicious that this product provides any additional benefit that would justify its cost.

Please remember that you can support the Beauty Brains by purchasing ANYTHING on Amazon using the Beauty Brains Amazon.com link


Alboleen Warm Cream – vintage cosmetic video

Having worked with a number of advertising agencies over the years I can tell you that they SALIVATE over the possibility of a side by side demonstration. And if that demo can be done against a competitive product they’ll pretty much wet themselves right in the meeting. (This is not to suggest that all ad execs are incontinent.)

This Alboleen Warm Cream commercial is a great example of a “half face test” which conveys the product’s two main benefits: it melts into your skin and removes eye makeup better than regular cold cream.

How does it accomplish this melting magic? Alboleen is a petrolatum and mineral oil mixture and, unlike traditional cold creams, it doesn’t contain any fatty alcohols which give a creamy white texture. That formula is also an excellent solvent for greasy makeup.

Now if only it could remove the permanent marker in the middle of the model’s face.

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Happy Independence Day to all our American readers! To celebrate we’re reprinting one of our favorite posts about cosmetic science around the time of the American Revolution.

If you’re interested in learning what life was like in colonial America, you can find an excellent summary at Fortklock.com; the details of how women made their own makeup was particularly fascinating. Believe me, they didn’t have much to work with! Here’s a quick comparison of colonial chemistry to our modern day magic.

Lip color

Then: Mix beet juice with lard.

Now: Something in a nice pinkish-taupe like NARS Turkish Delight!


Then: Either pinch your cheeks or, for the cultured sophisticate, mix beet juice with talc or cornstarch. (Jeez, those colonials were really big on beets!)

Now: Unfortunately, natural minerals hadn’t been invented yet back in 1776 or else they could have worn Laura Mercier Mineral Cheek Powder.


Then: Moisten eyelashes with your fingers. (Mmmm, saliva-scented eyelashes! Jan Marini eat your heart out!)

Now: Today we have the incredible tubing technology of Blinc Kiss Me Mascara.

Anti-aging skin creams

Then: Rub bacon grease or fat on your face.

Now: Dab on a little ZIRH Protect Face Moisturizer. It even sounds like it’s from the Future – it’s ZIRH!

Lip Plumpers

Then: Bite your lip several times throughout the day.

Now: Never fear, Lip Fusion Micro-Injected Collagen Lip Plump is here! (I’ll stick to biting my lip, thank you kindly.)

The Beauty Brains bottom line

We have a lots to be thankful for this Independence Day: Government for the people by the people; freedom of religion, and science-spawned, store-bought cosmetics! Yay!

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Will waterproof sunscreen give you acne?

Tree asks…The sales assistant in a makeup store told me I shouldn’t be using waterproof sunscreen because it’s too heavy for me. The sunscreen contains zinc oxide. She recommended me another one that doesn’t contain parabens and is also lighter. I don’t care about parabens but is waterproof sunscreen something I should stay away from?

The Beauty Brains respond:

I see the logic behind this: if something is waterproof it must be so oily and heavy that it HAS to clog your pores, right? Not necessarily.

Whether or not a sunscreen will cause acne depends on the comedogenicity of the ingredients in the formula. Some ingredients are more likely to form comedones (the “plugs” that contribute to acne.) If the product contains these ingredients it may cause you to break out.

Unfortunately, even though you can look up comedogencity of some ingredients, it’s not an exact science and you can’t predict what a blend of ingredients will do. Your best bet (even though it still doesn’t guarantee anything) is to look for a sunscreen that has been tested and labeled as “non-comedogenic.”

The risk of a little acne is worth getting good protection from skin cancer!


Can I freeze my Skinceuticals Vitamin C serum?

Oconor asks…A lot of people, myself included, are taking a DIY route for this product, and I know refrigeration will slow the oxidation, but how will freezing affect a formulation like Skinceuticals C and E Ferulic and the LotionCrafter copycat kit?

The Beauty Brains respond: 

Freezing is never recommended for a cream or lotion because it can cause the emulsion to break. A good cosmetic formulator does some worse case freeze-thaw testing to make sure their products won’t fall apart if the temperature dips into the freezing range but you shouldn’t be deliberately exposing your product to freezing temperatures just to prevent oxidation.

If the product is a serum then its more of a solution of ingredients than an emulsion so it’s less likely to separate. However, freezing is still not a good idea because it messes with the solubility of the components.

Prolonging the shelf life of a product by storing it in the fridge is perfectly fine. The kinds of chemical reactions that cause product to go bad double in speed for every 10C increase in temperature. So, cooler is better.

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What are active ingredients in cosmetics? What does active even mean? And are the rest of the ingredients “inactive?” This week we give you some tips on how to spot which ingredients really work.     

Click below to play Episode 37 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Name that brand

We try out a new game where I ask Randy to name beauty brands based on their advertising taglines. How many of these can you name?

  • Look Ma, no cavities.
  • Because I’m worth it.
  • That’s the beauty of nature plus science.
  •  99 and 44/100′s pure.
  • Strong enough for a man but made for a woman.
  • Healthy makes it happen.
  • Take it all off.
  • THE company for women.
  • Makeup for all ages, all races and all sexes.
  • The makeup of makeup artists.
  • Manly yes, but I like it too.
  • The beauty authority.
  • Laughter is the best cosmetic so grin and wear it.
  • Makeup inspired by you.

Listen to the show for the answers.

Question of the week: What are active ingredients?

Lia asks…I hear people talk about “active” ingredients in cosmetics. What are they? And does that mean some ingredients aren’t active at all? How can I tell which is which just by reading the label?

Active ingredient type 1: OTC drug actives

There are really two types of “active” ingredients. In both cases they deliver the promise or the benefit of the product. The “truest” active ingredients are those specified as drugs by the appropriate governing body. Those are required by law to be listed as “Active Ingredients” on the product so that’s very unambiguous. Not only does the active have to be identified as such but it has to be used in the formula at specified levels so you never have to wonder if it’s used at a sufficiently high concentration.


  • Avobenzone or Octinoxate in sunscreens
  • Benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid in anti-acne creams
  • Fluoride in toothpaste

15 cosmetics that are actually drugs

There are 15 categories of over the counter drugs that people think are cosmetics.

A monograph is essentially a recipe book that tells formulators exactly the ingredients, doses, and formulations they can use when creating an over-the-counter drug. It also gives the exact claims that can be made about the product and describes other labeling requirements.

Here is a list of cosmetic/OTC products that are governed by an FDA monograph.

  1. Anti-acne products – This monograph describes 40 different ingredients that can be used for anti-acne. Rule was finalized in 1990 although there was some action in 2010 on Benzoyl Peroxide.
  2. Toothpaste & anti-cavity products – This monograph gives a list of over 20 ingredients that can be used to fight cavities. The final rule was issued in 1995.
  3. Topical anti-fungal – Products that are topically applied to places that need anti-fungal effects (diaper rash, feet, etc). Final rule was originally passed in 1993.
  4. Anti-microbial products – There is a long list of ingredients that can be used for topical anti-microbial products. For most of the antimicrobial ingredients, the final rule has not yet been issued. It is suggested you follow the proposed rules when formulating.
  5. Antiperspirant – This monograph is for products that are designed to stop sweating. The final monograph was originally issued in 2003. It lists 26 active ingredients that you can use.
  6. Astringents – These are classified as skin protectants. The final rule was originally issued in 2003.
  7. Corn & Callus removers – Definitely a niche product but some cosmetic companies might want to create these formulations.
  8. Dandruff products – If you are planning to create an anti-dandruff shampoo, then you have to follow the rules of this monograph. The final monograph was issued in 1991 & revised in 1992.
  9. Hair growth / hair loss – The final monograph for these types of products was issued in 1989 and includes nothing that works. However, in 1994, Minoxidil was switched from a perscription drug to an OTC. It remains the only non-perscription option.
  10. Nailbiting products – There is a monograph for products that are designed to stop people from biting their nails. Who knew? The final monograph was issued in 1993.
  11. Psoriasis – These products are designed to treat the condition of psoriasis. The tentative monograph was issued in 1986 and has yet to be finalized. Only a couple of active ingredients are allowed including Coal Tar and Salicylic acid.
  12. Skin bleaching – Skin lightening products are OTCs in the US. The tentative final monograph was issued in 1982 but it has yet to be finalized. There are only 2 active ingredients acceptable for skin lightening.
  13. Sunscreen – It’s been a long time coming but a final monograph on this topic was issued in 2011.
  14. Topical analgesic – These products find a wide variety of application and cover products such as those designed for diaper rash, cold sore treatments, poison ivy treatments, and others.
  15. Wart remover – Products that are used to remove warts. The final monograph was issued in 1990 but updated in 1994. Thirteen active ingredients are listed.

Active ingredient type 2: “Functional” ingredients

Now just because an ingredient is not a drug doesn’t mean it’s not active. As Perry said, active can mean that the ingredient delivers the benefit of the product. In that case, the surfactants used in a shampoo or body wash are active because they’re responsible for cleaning hair and skin. The same thing goes for the silicones in a hair conditioner, the colorants in a mascara, or the polymers in a hairspray. If the ingredient is essential to making the product work, then it is “active.”


  • Detergents in shampoos and body washes.
  • Oils in skin lotions
  • Dye precursors in hair colors
  • Polymers in hairsprays
  • Alpha hydroxy acids in anti-aging product

These are not easily recognizable. First of all they’re many more of these “functional” ingredients than there are drug actives so it’s impossible to create a meaningful list. Also, unlike drugs, they can be used at differing levels – at some concentrations they are functional at lower levels they are not. As a rule of thumb if it’s in the first 5 ingredients it’s probably functional can help but even that’s not full proof. There are many functional ingredients that are used at lower concentrations. (cationic conditioners, for example, some anti-aging actives like Niacinamide.)

Base ingredients

They form the delivery vehicle for the active ingredients. Active ingredients are rarely used by themselves in a 100% concentrated form. There’s usually an optimal use level for ingredients to ensure that they do their job. Therefore the actives have to be “diluted” with something. That something may be as simple as water or as complex as a cream or lotion base or an aerosol spray. It may take dozens of ingredients to form the “base” of the product. Solvents, like water and alcohol, and emulsifiers, to help oils and water mix together, are among the most common types of base ingredients.


  • Water in most products
  • Cetyl and stearyl alcohol in conditioners, hand and body lotions.
  • Talc in pressed eye shadow or blush.
  • Alcohol or propellant gas in a hairspray

Control ingredients

They ensure the product stays within acceptable parameters.
Gums and polymers are used to stabilize emulsions, acids and bases are used to balance pH, polyols are used to maintain texture after freezing, and preservatives are used to protect against microbial contamination. These are just a few examples of control agents that help maintain the quality of the product.


  • Xanthan gum in creams and lotions
  • Citric acid to control pH in water based products
  • BHA in oil based products
  • Benzophenone 4 in clear products (protects color)

Aesthetic agents

They improve the product’s sensory characteristics.
The look and smell are important parts of almost every cosmetic product which is why you’ll see colorants and fragrance used so frequently. You might even see “glitter” particles added.


  • Fragrance sometimes listed as parfum.
  • Colorants with names like Blue #1, Green #5, Violet #2. Iron oxides, ultramarines, etc.
  • Glycol distearate (Opacifier)

Featured ingredients

They are added to increase consumer appeal. These ingredients are also called pixie dust, fairy dust, marketing ingredients and a few other names. These are truly “inactive” because they’re added ONLY because they look good as part of the label. They serve no function other than to attract consumer’s attention. These ingredients include botanicals, vitamins and minerals, (some) proteins and just about anything else “natural.” You can easily spot these ingredients because they are often incorporated into the product name (Sun-kissed Raspberry Shampoo) or placed on the front label (lotion with jojoba oil).

This depends on the product – if you have a shampoo with natural jojoba oil . It’s likely to be used at a freatured ingredient. It would be at a very low level and it would be rinsed away.

However a skin lotion with organic jojoba oil it does serve the purpose of being “featured” but it could also provide a benefit, in this case emolliency, skin softening.

Spotting “active” ingredients by reading the label

First of all, why would you even want to identify active ingredients? There are a couple of reasons.

1. You’re looking for a new product that’s supposed to deliver a specific benefit, like an anti-aging cream. If you’ve been listening to the show you know that certain anti-aging actives have been proven to work better than others. So, if you know what to look for in an active ingredient you’re less likely to waste your money on crappy products.

2. Or, you may have a favorite product that’s either discontinued or that you want to find a cheaper alternative for. In that case, understanding which ingredients are really providing the benefit will help you find a replacement.

In the case of drug actives it’s easy. For “functional” cosmetic ingredients you’ll have to do a little more digging.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

When it comes to cosmetics which are over the counter drugs, active ingredients are clearly defined. But for the majority of beauty products “active” is kind of in the eye of the beholder. We’ve given you some broad guidelines to identify which are truly functional ingredients but you really have to look at each product on a case by case basis. And that’s difficult if you’re not a trained cosmetic chemist. But if you are trying to identify an active in a specific product we’d be happy to help. All you have to do is start a discussion thread in our Forum.

LIL buy it now button

Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.


Understanding what cosmetic claims REALLY mean

Cosmetic companies (at least in the United States) are prohibited by law from making false claims. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t make claims that sound amazing and wonderful even though they are not that meaningful. Understanding what claims really mean and what kind of evidence is required to support them can make you a smarter shopper.

Figuring out claims

The first step in figuring out how product claims are supported is to figure out what claims are being made. This takes some practice and some thoughtful reading. Let’s look at the example of  Pantene Shampoo + Conditioner.

I like Drugstore.com because they list claims and ingredients in a handy text-friendly form. Here is what is listed for the Pantene product.

Pantene’s unique shampoo & conditioner system with weightless moisturizers replenishes hair from root to tip to help prevent split ends from forming.

Pantene Dry to Moisturized Conditioner helps repair damage, revealing your light, bouncy, revitalized hair.

Moisturizing conditioner strengthens hair against damage and breakage
Helps Protect against damage and split ends
Gentle enough for color-treated or permed hair

Step 1 – List of cosmetic claims

Now, let’s list all the claims they are making.

1. Pantene’s unique shampoo & conditioner system
2. …with weightless moisturzers…
3. (system) “…replenishes hair from root to tip…”
4. “…help prevent split ends from forming”
5. (Pantene) “…helps repair damage…”
6. “…revealing your light, bouncy, revitalized hair.”
7. “Moisturizing conditioner strengthens hair against damage & breakage”
8. Helps protect against damage and split ends
9. Gentle enough for color-treated or permed hair

Step 2 – Logical Evaluation

A few of these claims can simply be supported with logic.

1. As long as the exact shampoo & conditioner formulas are not used in some other line, they are unique. Thus, the claim is validated.

2. This claim is a little questionable as the term “weightless” implies they have no mass. However, the company could support this by weighing hair before use, then after use and as long as there is no significant difference, the claim is verified.

3. “Replenish” is practically a meaningless word so the company has lots of leway in defining it. As long as they can prove something is left behind (e.g. silicone, cationic polymer) then they could support this claim.

4. Preventing split ends can be supported by counting the number of split ends caused by combing (robotic comb). They can compare it to treated versus untreated hair. If there are less split ends on treated hair, the claim is supported.

5. “Repairing damage” is a tricky claim to support, but “helping to repair damage” is much easier. By pointing to the moisturizing ingredients and the improvement in combing as proof, the company can support the claim of helping to repair damage.

6. These are just fluff claims but the company could use an Instron or Diastron or some other hair device to demonstrate “bounciness.” As long as they compare it to some untreated control, they wouldn’t have a problem doing better.

7. Strengthen hair is a tricky claim but companies have used robotic combs to demonstrate that there is less breaking when combing through treated hair. The hair isn’t actually stronger but it breaks less so TV and other media have accepted the argument.

8. Supported with the same test that supports claim #7

9. This is a vague claim but they could support it by washing colored hair with the system and demonstrating that it hasn’t significantly changed.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Reputable cosmetic companies will never lie to you about what their products can do. However, they may exaggerate the truth to entice you to buy a product. If you learn to read between the lines and to understand what claims really mean you’ll be able to make better shopping choices. And always remember – if a claim sounds to good to be true it probably is.


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Beauty science news – June 29

I hope you’re strong enough to take this because it’s not beauty science news of the weak! (Get it?)

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