From crimson lips to malachite green eyeshadow, cosmetic colors have been a part of human culture for centuries. As early as 4000 B.C., Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians were coming with up techniques to produce makeup. They used clay, semi precious stones, seaweed extract, paprika, turmeric, and many other natural materials to create an array of vibrant colors and hues that would forever influence the way we produce cosmetics today.
Naturally, over the years, the materials used to produce color have changed — in most cases, for the better. Dangerous concoctions of lead and copper that arose during the 1800s have since been replaced with zinc oxide. And coal tar dyes that were popular in the 1900s are now regulated. Yet, despite this evolution, many dyes and pigments still contain toxic materials such as heavy metals. So how can we make sure we’re choosing products with safe color additives?
From dyes to pigments, mineral oxides to lakes, for those of us who aren’t chemists, today’s world of colors can be quite confusing. To help demystify things, here’s your guide to understanding cosmetic color additives.
Understanding the Types of Cosmetic Colors and Dyes
Cosmetic color additives can be divided into two broad categories: organic and inorganic. (Note: the term “organic”, in this case, does not bear the same meaning we associate with our groceries. Instead, the word organic indicates that the chemical structure of the colorant includes carbon atoms.)
There are three major types of organic color additives: synthetic dyes, lakes, and botanicals. Inorganic color additives are made up of mineral compounds, such as iron oxide and zinc oxide.
The Difference Between Dyes and Pigments
Color additives, both organic and inorganic, are further classified as either a dye or pigment. Organic dyes are considered dyes. Organic lakes and botanicals, as well as all inorganic mineral compounds are considered pigments. In general, when referring to cosmetic color additives, what determines a dye from a pigment is its solubility - dyes are water soluble, while pigments are oil dispersible.
A Deeper Look
Organic synthetic dyes are typically labelled with ‘FD&C’ or ‘D&C’ in their name. (Certified FD&C colors have been approved for use in food, drugs, and cosmetics; D&C for drugs and cosmetics, but not in food.) Alternatively, some dyes will have the name of a color followed by a number; for example, Blue 1 Lake and Orange 5.
These dyes are synthetically created from chemically refined petroleum oil or coal-tar derivatives that contain toxic heavy metals. Sound a bit nasty? That’s because it is. Despite being legal, FD&C colors can still be harmful to the body. As they absorb into the skin, they can deplete the body of oxygen. We need oxygen to fuel our cells - without it, we have less energy and our bodies don’t function properly. They can also be absorbed through the oral cavity from cosmetics used around the mouth.
FD&C dyes are renowned for their bright hues. They’re responsible for creating beauty favorites such as fire engine red lipstick. While you can create red hues with mineral pigments, it's very difficult to achieve the brightness and intensity that you get from synthetic dyes.
The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed to regulate potentially harmful ingredients in products sold within the U.S. While this helps weed out some of the extremely toxic dyes, the guidelines are relatively loose. Many FD&C certified dyes are still highly toxic, and are legally allowed to contain low levels of lead and other heavy metals. Over time, these heavy metals build up in the body and can cause severe health problems. Health risks include cancer, allergies, reproductive and developmental disorders, neurological problems, memory loss, mood swings, muscle disorders, kidney and renal problems, lung damage, hair loss, nausea, and headaches. Unfortunately, the list goes on and on.
A lake pigment is made by reacting a dye with an inert binder, usually a metallic salt. Many lakes are produced from FD&C colors, and are available in ‘high dye’ or ‘low dye’ compositions. Aluminum is often a component, and will be noted in the name.
Generally, lakes work well in cosmetics because they do not bleed color. In addition, like synthetic dyes, these pigments give off super bright hues.
Most lakes are made with FD&C colors and, thus, have the same health and environmental consequences that synthetic dyes have. Even if they have minimal toxicity levels, many of these pigments have carcinogenic properties.
Azo Dyes & Pigments
Some synthetic dyes and lakes are referred to as azo dyes and pigments. Azos are created by forming a compound which includes a nitrogen=nitrogen double bond. Most commonly used in textiles, some azo colors have made their way into cosmetics.
While there isn’t too much research on these colors, recent studies have shown them to be potentially harmful. The issue with azos is that they have the potential to break down into their original structures, causing them to release toxic aromatic amines, some of which are known carcinogens.
This is a huge concern for the general public. The EU has already banned quite a few of these dyes and pigments, and it seems that many more will be added to the list in the near future.
Technically, botanicals are the only natural color additives out there. Beet root powder and henna are two popular examples. Botanicals, however, can be pretty difficult to work with because they bleed very easily. In addition, there are only a few botanicals that are actually approved for the use in makeup.
In general, these additives are safe for the body; you just might not see them being used in many cosmetics.
As mentioned, these colors do not set well in makeup products.
Carmine is another organic color additive that falls into its own category. It produces a unique red, much brighter than any other dye or pigment. Made from the ground-up, dried bodies of a cacti-eating bug called the cochineal insect, it’s a popular additive used in red lipstick. Despite this pigment’s origin, it is not considered in labels with claims like ‘no animal derivatives’ or ‘cruelty free’.
Mineral pigments - often listed as mica, oxides and ultramarines - are generally regarded as much healthier alternatives to artificial dyes.
Inorganic pigments found in nature, mineral compounds were initially collected straight from the earth. However, it was later discovered that many pigments mined naturally included toxic materials, including heavy metals. In order to ensure consumer safety and avoid contamination, the FDA has since enforced a law that all mineral compound color additives be produced synthetically in a lab.
Minerals are an excellent, safe option in the world of color additives. They produce beautiful earthy tones, and will not harm the body. In addition, these colors do not bleed and, thus, work very well in cosmetics.
The category of "mineral pigments" includes mica (shimmery rocks, basically). Sadly, mica is still mined, and largely by children. Thankfully, there are efforts in the industry to remedy this horrific practice, but there's still a long way to go. At Axiology, we're committed to using mica that is verified not to use child-labor.
Another, albeit modest, drawback of mineral pigments is that it can be difficult to replicate super bright hues using only minerals.
Which Colorants Are Safe?
In general, mineral pigments, specifically micas, oxides, and ultramarines, are considered to be ‘safe’ color additives. Synthetic dyes and lakes, on the other hand, pose serious health threats. Their use should either be strictly limited, or avoided altogether.
While the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 certainly helped enforce regulations that monitor the safety of color additives, a lot still slips through the cracks. In fact. when compared to the EU, the US has much less stringent regulations. Dozens of colorants approved for use in the US have been banned from the EU. With such a disparity, it’s a very tricky territory for the average consumer to navigate.
Fortunately, organizations like the Environmental Working Group and the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations make information available to us, so that we can actually check and monitor the safety of the products we use. Even if something is approved for the market but falls into that grey zone, we can check the risk level for ourselves. The only downside is that this can be a time consuming task.
Our Unwillingness To Compromise On Quality
Unfortunately, the cosmetic industry goes to great lengths to keep certain information out of the hands of the average consumer. Heavy metals, for instance, don’t have to be listed on the ingredients list since they’re considered ‘byproducts.’ This means that we have to be responsible for educating ourselves, so that we can make healthy decisions.
At Axiology, we strive to help you in this endeavor by being someone you can trust in this, often deceiving, industry. We’re committed to using safe ingredients that we can confidently say will not harm you. While there are a lot of ingredients that lie in the grey area, we feel that until proved safe - we’d rather not take the chance.
After all, there are plenty of mineral colors that produce beautiful hues, without posing a threat to your health or the environment! Save your bright red lipstick for special occasions, and use a mineral based color as your everyday lip color. Or, make the switch to entirely mineral based colors. With proper knowledge, we can decide what we wear, how often we wear it, and how long we leave it on.