Kaja inquires…You often mention “active ingredients” – what are they and which are the “non-active” ingredients?
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. 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).