Kaja inquires…You often mention “active ingredients” – what are they and which are the “non-active” ingredients?
The Left Brain replies:
I love this question even though there is no simple, straightforward
answer. While other cosmetic chemists may have their own definitions, I
like to think that you can break all beauty product ingredients down
into five basic categories:
*5 Types of Cosmetic Ingredients*
Active ingredients: They deliver the promise of the product.
Of course the type of activity varies widely. I guess the “truest”
active ingredients are those specified as drugs by the appropriate
governing body. So UV absorbers in sunscreens, benzoyl peroxide in
anti-acne creams, and fluoride in toothpaste are all REALLY active.
But even the surfactants used in a shampoo or body wash are active by
my definition – they are responsible for getting your hair or skin
clean which is the basic promise of the product. 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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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. The
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