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Cosmetic chemistry – the most common ingredients found in beauty products

People have been using cosmetics since ancient times to enhance their appearance and take care of their bodies. The ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Romans were all familiar with makeup and beauty items and they used them either to protect their skin or to accentuate their features. Fast forward a few thousand years and cosmetics are more popular than ever.

Things changed a lot in the beauty industry over the years. Besides having a much wider variety of cosmetics products available than the ancient Egyptians ever had, probably the most notable transformation is that we’ve eliminated dangerous or potentially deadly substances from the list of ingredients used in these products. And just like that, the cosmetic industry turned into one of the most profitable industries on the planet, with a revenue estimated at billions of dollars each year. 

Creams, lotions, deodorants, shampoos, makeup items are just some of the cosmetic products most of us use on a daily basis. Since we have so many options to choose from, we stock our bathroom cabinets and vanity tables with all sorts of makeup and personal care items that are meant to make us look and feel better.  

People simply love their beauty products, but very few are also interested in what they actually contain. It’s strange to think that so many of us don’t know what we’re putting on our skin. So, we believe it’s time to go behind the scenes and delve into cosmetic chemistry in order to shed some light on this topic.

Makeup artists, take note!

The life of a makeup artist is anything but easy as they have to perfect their makeup skills, staying up to date with the latest makeup techniques and products in the industry, working under pressure or in difficult work settings, etc. 

However, as a makeup artist, great makeup skills are not enough to achieve success in the field. Having a thorough understanding of the products you use on your clients and what they contain is just as important. This can help you choose and mix products properly in order to get the best results. It can also keep unpleasant events at bay – the last thing you want is to deal with product contamination or skin damages caused by the products you used. 

Of course, a good makeup artist insurance can protect you and your business in these situations, but it’s much better to learn how to avoid these issues in the first place. And that’s why a basic knowledge of cosmetic chemistry can come in handy and help you become a much better makeup artist. 

Common ingredients used in cosmetics 

Now, onto the good part, where we finally decipher the mystery and find out what most cosmetic products contain. While there are thousands of cosmetic items on the market at the moment, each of them with their unique blend of chemicals, many of which have long and hard-to-pronounce names, most products have a series of ingredients in common. So, we’re going to focus on listing these ingredients and explaining what their purpose is. 


Water is probably the most common ingredient found in cosmetic products, and that’s why we placed it at the top of our list. Water is used as the basis for many cosmetic products, from creams and cleansers to shampoos and deodorants, so you’ll see it listed as the main ingredient on many product labels. It’s often used as the main solvent to dissolve many of the other ingredients in the product. 


Emulsifiers refer to a category of ingredients that are used to keep other ingredients from separating when formulating a product. Many cosmetic products contain ingredients that don’t mix with each other – like water and oil. That’s where emulsifiers such as Laureth-4, polysorbates, and potassium cetyl sulfate come into play to keep ingredients together and create a homogenous and even consistency. 


Preservatives represent a very important class of ingredients that many people are already familiar with. Their purpose is to extend the shelf-life of cosmetic products as they have anti-microbial properties that prevent the products from going bad. Without preservatives, the shelf-life of many popular cosmetic products would be a lot shorter and we’d have to replace them much more often. 


Just as the name implies, thickeners are ingredients that have to do with consistency. When formulating a product, the combination of ingredients used doesn’t always result in a pleasant or elegant consistency. That’s why thickeners are used – to correct these issues by enhancing the consistency, volume, and viscosity of cosmetic products. Xanthan gum, gelatin, cetyl alcohol, or silica are common thickeners used in the cosmetic industry. 


Emollients are ingredients that have a softening effect on the skin, so you’ll find them in a lot of creams, lotions, and balms. They work by creating a protective film on the skin that traps moisture inside, thus reducing water loss. This makes emollients ideal for restoring and protecting the skin barrier function. Oils, waxes, and silicones all fall into this category. 


Have you ever wondered how makeup companies come up with those beautiful shades for their eye palettes, lipsticks, or blushes? Coloring agents and pigments are used to achieve that, and they include a wide variety of powder-based chemicals such as iron oxide, mica flakes, manganese, beet powder, and so on. 


Shiny and glittering makeup products are definitely an eye-catcher, but their chemical composition is pretty basic. There are different substances that can produce this shimmering effect in cosmetic products, the most common ones being mica and bismuth oxychloride. 


Fragrance in cosmetics usually has the role of making the product more appealing to the consumer. Companies use both naturally occurring substances as well as chemical ingredients to give their products a pleasant smell. There are many chemicals that can hide under the name fragrance since most fragrances are created by using a variety of different ingredients. 

Posted by Emily Dawson on Sep 26, 2021 5:44 PM Europe/London

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