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What’s On My Face?: The Chemistry of Cosmetics

When you apply your makeup each day, do you know exactly what’s going on your face?

When you apply your makeup each day, do you know exactly what’s going on your face? When you wash your hair or apply your favorite scent, do you know what’s in it?

Most people do not. In Ancient Greece, women applied toxic lead carbonate to their faces in order to lighten their complexions (1). Fortunately, nowadays, cosmetic chemists are very cautious of what’s being used and how that might affect buyers’ skin.

In the United States, there are 12,500 chemical compounds that are proven safe and approved for use in cosmetic manufacturing. Most cosmetic products contain, on average, about 15-50 chemical compounds. It is thought that the average woman applies nearly 515 individual chemicals to her body each day. (1).

If you visit the Australian Academy of Science’s webpage on Cosmetic Chemistry, there is an interactive sections where you can choose the products you use and see how many chemicals you are putting on your body each day.

There are a few main ingredients in cosmetics: water, emulsifiers, preservatives, thickeners, emollients, colors, fragrances, and pH stabilizers.

Water is the basis in almost every cosmetic product. Water is a solvent and able to dissolve other ingredients. The water used in cosmetics is purified water that contains no microbes or toxins.

Emulsifiers are ingredients that keep unlike substances from separating or breaking apart. Many cosmetics use small drops of oil in water or vice versa. Emulsifiers change the surface tension of the product and product a smoother texture. Polysorbates are common emulsifiers.

Preservatives help the product to work longer and prevent the growth of bacteria. The preservatives are water soluble since the basis of the product is water. Some of the most common preservatives are parabens, benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, and tetrasodium EDTA. Controversy surrounds the topic of preservatives, but studies show that they are safe and effective. However, consumers can still be cosmetic products free of preservatives if they wish, although the product will not have a long “shelf life”.

Thickeners give the products a thicker consistency so they can applied easily. Thickeners can come from lipids, hydrophilic polymers, minerals, or can be synthetic carbomers.

Emollients moisturize the skin. They are used in many products like lotions and lipsticks. Beeswax is a popular emollient for its natural properties against water loss. However, synthetic and other natural emollients work well too.

Color comes from a wide array of substances. Color may come from shimmery mica or dark, pigmented coal tar. It may even come from beet powder or carmine from the cochineal insect. Most pigments are naturally occurring.

Products like this may get their distinct red color with carmine from the cochineal insect. It may be labeled as “natural red 4” on the ingredients label.

Fragrance is used to mask the smell of the chemicals. It is no secret that sometimes mixing compounds can produce a pungent smell. There are over 3,000 chemicals used to create an extensive list of available scents that are safe and effective for manufacturers to use while producing their cosmetics (1).

Still, the ever present question remains. Are these chemicals safe? The answer is yes.

Researchers put in chemicals that they know are safe. However, impurities may form naturally. These impurities are in such low doses that they have virtually no effect on humans. Our immune cells (or macrophages) can catch these particles and destroy them before they are ever able to cause any real harm. (1).

Before any product is put on the market, it goes through extensive testing. This can include heating, freezing, and even storing them at high altitudes. It is important to make sure that the product will not harm the skin. However, some companies take it as far as to make sure that the appearance is up to par too. Companies like Estée Lauder test their products in different scenarios to make sure that it still looks good. (2).

So the next time you apply your aftershave or mascara, know that although you may be using hundreds of chemicals, cosmetic chemists have tested your products hundreds of times and ensured its safety.


  1. “The Chemistry of Cosmetics”, Australian Academy of Science, https://www.science.org.au/curious/people-medicine/chemistry-cosmetics
  2. “Makeup Science”, Science News for Students, https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/makeup-science
  3. “Beauty”, American Chemical Society, https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/students/highschool/chemistryclubs/activities/beauty.html

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