What are active ingredients? Episode 37

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.     

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.

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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.

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