Cosmetic Ingredient Glossary

Cosmetic Ingredient Glossary

By Cosmetic Chemist / Owner & Formulator of I 2 by Ivana K

From the All Natural Beauty website:

We provide this cosmetic ingredient glossary as a source of enlightenment. We are in no way advocating the use of, or advising to treat, diagnose or cure any illness or medical problem with any of the ingredients listed here. While this is an abundant list of ingredients, it is certainly not complete, and we will continue to update it as time goes on.

Click on a letter to be taken to that letter’s category:

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ABSOLUTES – When aromatic material from plants is extracted by solvents instead of distillation, it is called ‘absolutes’. The solvent is later removed and what remains is a liquid that is thicker, more viscous and generally more concentrated than essential oils. This method of extraction is used for material that is easily destroyed by heat, commonly flower petals. Traces of solvent may remain in absolutes.

ACACIA – Gum arabicum, Catechu. Exudate from a stem of the acacia tree. It is widely used as stabilizer, thickener, demulcent and mucilage. It can cause allergic reactions.
ACETALDEHYDE – Used in the perfume and rubber industries. Naturally occurring in apples, broccoli, grapefruit and other fruits and vegetables. It is irritating to mucous membranes and also when inhaled.
ACETIC ACID – Organic acid found in vinegar, apples, grapes, cheese, oranges, skimmed milk and other fruits and plants. It is used as solvent, styptic (stops bleeding), rubefacient (stimulates blood circulation), astringent, and acidifier. It is highly corrosive when concentrated and its vapours are irritating and can cause lung damage. Widely used in different chemical industries, it can be produced naturally or synthetically.
ACETONE – A solvent in nail polish removers and nail finishes. It can cause the peeling and brittleness of nails, skin rashes and irritation if inhaled.
ACRYLAMIDE/ACRYLATES – Used as monomers and polymers in fake nails, nail enamels, shampoos, hair sprays. Strong irritants.
ADENOSINE TRIPHOSPHATE (ATP) – ATP transfers energy necessary for metabolism of the cell. It is an ‘energy currency’ of the basic unit in any organism, including human. It is produced during photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and it lends energy to all processes that take part inside a cell i.e. it powers the metabolic processes.
ADIPIC ACID – Naturally found in beets. Used in hair products industry, often as a polymer and in combination with other compounds for giving ‘body’ to hair, and in colour rinses.
AGAR – Used as an emulsifier and emollient in cosmetics and in food industry as a gelling agent and substitute for gelatin. It is extracted from various seaweed.
ALCOHOL – As a common name it refers to Ethyl Alcohol or Ethanol. It is manufactured by fermentation of sugars, both in alcoholic beverages and for industrial use. Widely used as a solvent in perfumes and cosmetics, but also traditionally as an extracting agent and solvent for medicinal herbs, in numerous preparations and compounding over the centuries. Ethanol is drying to the skin and hair if used in excess because it dissolves fats. It can also be a preservative at the level above 20%. It has been largely replaced in preparations of plant extracts in cosmetic industry by propylene glycol and other glycols, due to its flammability and other reasons. It is however a natural solvent while the others are not.
ALGINIC ACID/ALGINATES – Obtained from brown algae, used as stabilizers and thickening agents due to their gelatinous texture.
ALKALOIDS – Natural amines occurring in plants and usually with highly potent biological reaction in human bodies, from healing to intoxication. Betaine, caffeine, cocaine, are all alkaloids.
ALKYL SULFATES – Widely used detergents, especially in shampoos. They first came about during Wold War II when the material for producing soaps (fats) were scarce in Germany, and the basic method involves turning a fatty acid into a fatty alcohol, which is further treated with sulfuric acid. Lauric acid reduced to lauric alcohol and then treated with sulfuric acid will give sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). They are also known as surfactants (see the separate entry). There is quite a divide and no common consensus on their toxicity or how irritating they are, but they are hard to avoid.
ALKYLOAMIDES – Widely used as emulsifiers, thickening and foaming agents, emollients, solubilizers, wetting and cleansing agents, and so on.
1. DEA – diethanolamides
2. MEA – monoethanolamides
3. TEA – triethanolamides
4. MIPA – monoisopropanolamides
5. PEG or ethoxylated alkyloamides
They are also manufactured by using fatty acids as starting material. Not considered toxic, but can become contaminated with nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are created during different processes, including some in the human body, also in curing meats, and are considered cancer-causing.
ALLANTOIN – It helps heal wounds and skin ulcers. Although it occurs naturally, its wide use has resulted with mostly synthetic production from uric acid.
ALPHA-HYDROXY ACIDS – AHA. Organic acid with a hydroxyl group on the first carbon atom (alpha). Glycolic, Lactic, Citric, Malic, Tartaric.
They are relatively new in wide use (since the 1990s), especially when used in high concentrations, and long-term effects are unknown. Levels of use are anywhere between 4-5% and up to 70%. Obviously, the higher the concentration the greater the risk of the damage to the skin, and possible side effects. General guidelines on safety are: use products with less than 10% of AHAs, with pH higher than 3.5 (the lower the pH the higher the acidity, thus greater degree of irritation to the skin) and avoid sun exposure.
ALPHA-LIPOIC ACID – ALA, thioctic acid. Synthesized in the body and part of the Krebs cycle (the process by which the body converts carbohydrates into energy). It is a fatty acid containing two sulfur atoms. Powerful antioxidant. Used as supplement in many diabetes-related conditions, now popular as an ingredient in anti-aging creams.
ALUMINUM SALTS – Acetate, Chloride, Caprylate, Glycinate, etc. also Aluminum Hydroxide. Used in anti-perspirants. The odour of sweat is created when the sweat reaches the skin and the bacteria act on it. The salts are believed to impede the action of sweat and also by being antibacterial. There are weak and strong salts. Obviously the stronger ones will be more irritating and they are usually buffered to counteract the effect. Human bodies are exposed to aluminum in many ways in everyday life, not only through antiperspirants. It is also one of the most abundant minerals on Earth, and it can be highly toxic in high exposures. Whether it is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and how, is however not yet known.
AMINO ACIDS – Organic acids containing an amine group. When linked together in different combinations, they create peptides, polypeptides and proteins. Of 22 known amino acids 8 can’t be produced by the body and are called essential amino acids. The body needs them in order to create its own proteins, i.e. they are essential to the functioning and ultimately the health of the human organism. They must be consumed through food. In cosmetics, amino acids are used with intent of helping the metabolic processes in the skin and hair by being available to either repair or improve the condition.
AMMONIA – Derivatives of ammonia are many and diverse. Not every ammonia compound will be toxic (like ammonium phosphate, or sulfate), which will also depend on the level and the type of use. Ammonia is also used in manufacturing many other chemicals and its traces may be present. Cosmetically, many ammonia compounds are used in hair preparations, especially for permanent waving.
AMPHOTERIC SURFACTANTS – These are agents that possess both positive and negative charge i.e. they can act as both acid and alkaline. Although considered milder and better than alkyl sulfates, most are synthetic chemicals.
AMYL ALCOHOL – A solvent used in nail polish. Occurs naturally, smells like camphor and it is highly toxic. Its derivative, amyl acetate has a strong fruity odour, also highly toxic. Amyl butyrate, with its apricot-like odour, also occurs naturally, and is not toxic. Used in flavourings and perfumes.
ANIONIC SURFACTANTS – Synthetic compounds used widely as emulsifiers in cosmetics. ‘Anionic’ refers to the negative electrical charge that these surface-active compounds have. Sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, TEA lauryl sulfate, sodium cocoyl sarcosinate, disodium oleamide sulfosuccinate, to name a few. Sodium laureth sulfate is very irritating, while triethanolamine (TEA) coco hydrolyzed animal protein is milder.
ARAHIDIC ACID – A fatty acid also called eicosanoic acid that is found in peanut oil and similar vegetable fats. Also arahidic alcohol.
ARACHIDONIC ACID – Unsaturated liquid fatty acid found in liver, brain, glands and fat of animals and humans. It belongs to the group of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA). It is usually isolated from animal liver. Used in soothing skin preparations.
ARACHIDYL BEHENATE – A waxy fatty ester made from arachidic alcohol and behenic acid.

ARGIRELINE – Acetyl hexapeptide-3. A chain of 6 aminoacids attached to acetic acid. Promoted as a topical substitute for Botox, since it has shown some relaxing effect on facial muscles, and thus on wrinkles. A novel ingredient, its efficacy with regular use and long-term safety are yet to be established. Synthetically produced.

ASCORBIC ACID (VITAMIN C) – Necessary for normal teeth, bones and blood vessels, anti-oxidant, important for connective tissue. Soluble in water but also quickly disintegrates in solutions. More stable in a form of an ester: Ascorbyl Palmitate, or Ascorbyl Stearate.

ASTAXANTHIN – A red pigment occurring naturally in a wide variety of living organisms: crustaceans, including shrimp, crawfish, crabs and lobster, are tinted red by accumulated astaxanthin; this is why the salmon is pink. It is also an antioxidant.
AZULENE – Generally known as an anti-inflammatory blue-green concentrate extracted from camomile flower and used for soothing the skin.


B COMPLEX VITAMINS – B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B5 (Panthotenic acid), B6 (Pyridoxine), B12 (cyanocobolamin), Biotin, Folic acid, PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), Carnitine, Choline, Inositol. Often come as yeast extract and used for oily skin and in hair products.

BAKING SODA – Sodium bicarbonate. Relieves burns, itching, urticarial lesions and insect bites. Used in bath powders and as a common component in cosmetics for oily skin in homemade recipes.

BARIUM HYDROXIDE/SULFATE/SULFIDE – Used in depilatories. The first two are poisonous when ingested, the sulfide is also skin irritant, must not be applied on a broken skin.
BARRIER AGENT – A protective coating in hand creams and lotions which acts as a barrier against irritating chemicals, including water and detergents. Water-repellant barriers are used against water-soluble agents that are irritating to the skin and oil-repellant ones against the oil-soluble chemicals. Silicones (see separate entry) are often used as barrier agents. Also paraffin, petrolatum, ozokerite waxes, beeswax, celluloses, bentonite, alginates, gum tragacanth, pectin, zinc oxide, zinc stearate.
BATH OIL – Used in both foaming and nonfoaming oil. The concentration of perfume is also quite high, which may lead to sensitivities or allergic reactions. The oil in preparation is either mineral or vegetal and it contains surfactants to help spread the oil on the water surface. A common ingredient in foaming types of oil is TEA-lauryl sulfate, also foam stabilizers such as saponin (natural chemical) or methylcellulose to give the bubbles longevity. Colours are often added. Many of these ingredients can cause skin irritations.
BATH SALTS – Commonly used salts are rock salt (table salt) and sodium thiosulfate. Both are minerals that soothe the skin and the latter has low toxicity. The effervescent bath salts contain sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid. Other chemicals often added are borax, sodium hexametaphosphate, starch, sodium carbonate and sodium sesquacarbonate. Phosphate and borax may cause caustic irritation to the skin and mucous membranes; boric acid is poisonous when ingested or if absorbed through the skin.
BEHENALCONIUM CHLORIDE – see Quaternary Ammonium Salts. Used in many hair conditioners and rinses.
BEHENIC ACID/BEHENIC ALCOHOL – Docosanoic acid. Docosanol. Water-soluble constituent of seed fats, animal fats and marine animal oils used to opacify shampoos. Alcohol is derived from the behenic acid and it is a mixture of different fatty alcohols, also used as insecticide and antihistamine. Low toxicity.
BENTONITE – White clay found in United States in Canada. Used in makeup and face masks.
BENZALDEHYDE – Occurs naturally in the kernels of bitter almonds. Produced synthetically from lime and known as artificial almond oil, it is highly toxic.
BENZALKONIUM CHLORIDE (BAK) – A widely used ammonium detergent in hair products, after-shaves, deodorants and other cosmetics. It is also antibacterial. It is highly toxic.
BENZEN – A solvent obtained from coal and used in nail polish removers. Has a wide use in variety of industries, from airplane glue and detergents to varnishes. Flammable, highly irritating and toxic.
BENZOIC ACID/SODIUM BENZOATE – A preservative that occurs naturally in cherry bark, raspberries, tea, cassia bark. Used widely in food and cosmetics, as an antifungal agent. Mildly irritating to the skin, it can cause allergic reactions. Synthetically produced.
BENZOIN – Benzoic gum. Balsamic resin obtained from variety of tropical trees. Benzoin has antioxidant and preservative properties and it is not toxic.
BENZYL ALCOHOL /ACETATE – Aromatic alcohol and ester naturally occurring in many plants, including jasmine and used in perfumes and soaps, also as preservatives. High irritants.
BETA-CAROTENE – Provitamin A. Orange pigment in many vegetables, antioxidant.
BETA-HYDROXY ACIDS – BHA. Organic acids with a hydroxyl group on the second carbon atom (beta). Salicylic acid, beta hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid, trethocanic acid. (From a chemist’s perspective, salicylic acid is not a beta-hydroxy acid but it has become popular known as such). Currently, the most commonly used is salicylic acid. Like with AHA, the effects both positive and negative will depend on the concentration used. Salicylic acid is a strong keratolytic (‘eats up’ the skin) already at around 10%, i.e. it can cause a chemical burn. Use cautiously, test on a small patch of skin before applying to your face, be careful with sun exposure, and keep away from children.
BETAINE – Occurs naturally in beets and many other vegetables and animals. Used in resins. No known toxicity.
BHA/BHT – Butilated hydroxyanisole and butilated hudroxytoluene. Synthetic antioxidants used in food and cosmetics. Can cause adverse reactions.
BIOFLAVONOIDS – Vitamin P complex. Citrus-flavoured compounds important for maintaining healthy blood vessels walls. Widely distributed in plants, especially citrus fruits and rose hips.
BISABOL – Opopanax. Gum resin obtained from African trees. No know toxicity.
BISABOLOL – Natural aromatic alcohol, primary constituent of the essential oil from German Camomile. Soothing, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
BISULFATES – Curl relaxers or straighteners, used instead of thioglycolates, which are more toxic. Can still irritate scalp and cause sensitivities.
BITHIONOL – Used as preservatives in cosmetics, closely related to hexaclorophene. Serious photosensitizing agent, banned for use in many products.
BORAX – Sodium borate. Also boric acid and other borates. Used for a traditional emulsification with beeswax. Boric acid and its salts used also as antiseptics and preservatives due to bactericidal and antifungal properties. Highly poisonous if ingested or absorbed through the skin.
BRONOPOL® – Bronosol. Odourless crystals from chloroform, widely used as preservatives in cosmetics and toiletries. It is considered less sensitizing than parabens or isothiazolinones. It can form nitrosamines when acting together with amines or amides. It also breaks down to form formaldehyde, which is a suspected carcinogen.
BUBBLE BATH – Liquid bubble bath may contain TEA-dodecylbenzene sulfonate, fatty acid alkanolamides, perfume, water, colourings, methylparaben. Other ingredients may include alkyl benzene sulfonate, dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, propylene glycol, sodium hexametaphosphate, sodium sulfate and sodium tripolyphosphate. Ingestion of bubble bath may cause gastrointestinal problems, and skin irritations have been reported as well as many other possibly related health problems. Children especially should not take prolonged bubble baths, and particularly not unsupervised. Adults may aggravate dryness of their skin or inflammation by taking bubble baths.
BUTYLENE GLYCOL – Humectant and solvent for many herbal extracts used in cosmetics. It also retains scents and prevents spoilage. If ingested it is highly toxic.


C12 – C18 ALCOHOLS – Long chain fatty alcohols: cetyl, palmityl, myristyl, stearyl, arachidyl and oleyl.
CALAMINE – Zinc oxide with a small amount of ferric oxide, which gives it colour. Used in lotions, ointments and other preparations for soothing irritated skin.
CANDELILLA WAX – Obtained from Candelilla plants and used in lipsticks, solid fragrances and liquid powders.
CAPRIC ACID – Fatty acid that occurs in variety of plants. It has rancid smell and it is used in perfumes and as artificial fruit flavouring in lipsticks.
CAPROIC ACID – Hexanoic acid. Occurs naturally in apples, cocoa, grapes, strawberries and other plants but produced synthetically. No known toxicity.
CAPRYLIC ACID – Occurs naturally as a fatty acid in sweat, milk and palm and coconut oils. Also caprilyc alcohol.
CARBOMER – Carbopol. Carboxypolymethylene. Used as thickening, suspending, dispersing and emulsifying agent.
CARBOXYMETHYL CELLULOSE – A synthetic gum used widely in cosmetics as an emulsifier, stabilizer, foaming and barrier agent. Also used in ice cream and beverages as a stabilizer. No known toxicity on the skin but toxic if ingested.
CARNAUBA WAX – The exudate from the leaves of the Brazilian wax palm tree, used in makeup.
CARRAGEENAN – Irish moss. A stabilizer and emulsifier, used in cosmetics and foods. Completely soluble in water and nontoxic.
CARVONE – Oil of Caraway. Usually distilled from caraway and dill seed oils, also found in other essential oils. May be also synthetically produced. Carvol is a synthetic liquor, mint spice flavouring used in food industry, also perfumery and soaps.
CASTOR OIL – Widely used in lipsticks, also in bath oils, nail polish removers. Plasticizer in nail polish, it forms a tough shiny film when dried.
CATECHOL – Catechin. An aromatic alcohol found in catechu black (acacia).
CATIONIC SURFACTANTS – Synthetic compounds used as emulsifiers and wetting agents. Their positively charged ions repel water. This class of detergents consists mostly of quaternary ammonium compounds. Toxicity varies.
CELLULOSE – The plant fibres are mostly made of cellulose. Cellulose is chiefly produced from cotton into variety of cellulose gums, which are used as emulsifiers in creams.
CERAMIDES – Lipids found in animal cell membranes.
CERESINE – Made by purifying ozokerite and used as a substitute for beeswax and paraffin, also used to wax paper and cloth, in dentistry and as a thickener in protective creams.
CETALKONIUM CHLORIDE – Derived from ammonium, used as an antibacterial agent. Belongs to the group of quaternary ammonium compounds (see entry).
CETEARETH GROUP – Ethers made from cetyl alcohol and ethylene oxide. Synthetic emulsifiers, emollients, and lubricants. Also part of the Emulsifying wax.
CETEARYL ALCOHOL – Mixture of cetyl and stearyl fatty alcohols. Part of the Emulsifying wax.
CHLORHEXIDINE – Used as topical antiseptic and skin-sterilizer in mouthwashes and liquid cosmetics. May cause dermatitis.
CHLORINATED HYDROCARBONS – Chloroform, vinyl chloride, bis chloromethyl ether, trichloroethylene, heptachlor, methoxychlor and others – cancerogenic, environmental pollutants, tend to accumulate in the living tissues.
CHLOROACETIC ACID – Irritating to the skin and mucous membranes.
CHLOROPHYLL – The green matter form plants, used in antiperspirants, mouthwashes, deodorants.
CHLOROPHYLLIN – Derived from chlorophyll, used as copper complex. Banned by FDA.
CHOLESTEROL – A fat-soluble steroid alcohol found in animal fats and oils, egg yolk, lanolin. Used as an emulsifier and lubricant. Nontoxic to the skin.
CITRAL – Used in perfumes and soaps for its lemon and verbena scent. Also in detergents and furniture polishes. Occurs naturally in grapefruit, orange, peach and some essential oils. Isolated from citrus oils or made synthetically. It has shown toxicity in animal testing. Vitamin A counteracts its toxicity.
CITRIC ACID – Found widely in plants, this alpha-hydroxy acid is used extensively in cosmetics and the food industry. Citrates are salts or esters of citric acid.
COCAMIDE DEA/MEA/MIPA – Synthetic non-ionic surfactants. These and other surfactants beginning with ‘coco –‘ or ‘coca –‘ are referred to as ‘natural’ and ‘derived from coconut oil’. They are not natural and coconut oil is used for synthesizing great many chemical compounds, as are many other natural oils.
COCONUT OIL – The pure oil is solid to semi-solid and used as emollient in cosmetics and for making soaps in the old-fashioned way of saponification with an alkali. ‘From coconut oil’ doesn’t mean that the product is natural.
COENZYME Q10 – Ubiquinol. Fat-soluble, vitamin-like substance that plays important role in cellular metabolism. Found in meats, fish and peanuts. Powerful antioxidant.


D, VITAMIN – Liposoluble (soluble in fats, insoluble in water), essential for healthy bones, teeth and absorption of calcium. The body produces its own vitamin D in the sun. Only partially obtained from food.
DEA – Diethanolamine. See ethanolamines. Appears on cosmetic labels in many different combinations: DEA-Lauryl Sulfate, DEA-Linoleate, DEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, and so on. All synthetic surfactants.
DETERGENT – A large group of synthetic, organic, liquid or water-soluble agents that differ from soaps in that that they are not prepared from oils and fats, and are not deactivated by hard water. Most of them are made from petroleum derivatives and vary greatly in composition. They also have wetting and emulsifying properties. Quaternary ammonium compounds through their surface action exert cleansing and antibacterial effects. Their toxicity will depend on their alkalinity. The ones used in cosmetics have lower alkalinity, i.e. their pH value is closer to that of the skin.

DIAZOLIDINYL UREA – A synthetic preservative, it may be a sensitizer, it may also release formaldehyde.

DICHLOROPHENE – A fungicide and bactericide (preservative), closely related to hexachlorophene and a strong allergen.

DIMETHICONE – A silicone oil used in the cosmetic bases, as a topical drug vehicle and as a skin protector.

DMAE – Dimethylaminoethanol. Occurs naturally in fish, also produced synthetically. Used internally to increase cognitive abilities and memory, but very popular as an antiaging ingredient in creams in recent years. Some recent research indicates that it may have a rather powerful effect on cell metabolism.


E, VITAMIN – Tocopherol. Oil-soluble vitamin best known as an antioxidant. Involved in many vital metabolic processes.

EDTA – Ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid and its salts. A chelating agent used to reduce metal ions in compounds, which helps the action of surfactants and preservatives.

EMULSIFYING WAX NF – A mixture of emulsifiers and emollients. Usually a combination of Cetearyl alcohol (natural), Ceteareth-20 (synthetic) and Polysorbate-60 (synthetic). NF stands for National Formulary and refers to American standard formula. Other countries may have slightly different combinations under the name of ‘emulsifying wax’.

ERYTHORBIC ACID – An isomer of Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), with only a fraction of its action. Used in food industry.

ERYTHROSINE – A coal tar derivative, used as pigment in cosmetics.

ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS – EFA. Linoleic, linolenic and arachidonic. Vitamin F. Linolenic has the greatest biological importance. They must be supplied through diet and their deficiency may lead to arrested growth, kidney and liver damage, anemia, eczema, inflammations of the skin and hair, scaling and more.

ETHANOL – Ethyl alcohol. See Alcohol.

ETHANOLAMINES – Monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), they form soaps with fatty acids and are widely used as detergents and emulsifiers.

ETHOXYETHANOL – A solvent for nail polish and a stabilizer in cosmetics. Toxic. Ethoxyethanol acetate is not as toxic, also used in nail polishes.

ETHOXYLATED SURFACTANTS – Detergents, wetting agents and emulsifiers that have been treated with ethane gas and oxygen to make them more or less soluble.

ETHYL ACETATE – Naturally occurring in apples, bananas, grape juice, pineapple, strawberries and raspberries. It has a pleasant fruity odour. Used as a solvent in nail polishes and polish removers. It can be irritating to the skin and when inhaled.

EXTRACT – The solution that results from passing alcohol or alcohol-water mixture through a substance, usually plant material, with purpose of removing the active principles and making them easier to administer and measure than the raw material.


FARNESOL – Used in perfumery to emphasize the floral perfumes, such as lilac. Occurs naturally in ambrette seeds, cassia, star anise, linden flowers and more.

FATTY ACIDS – Solid or liquid, they are aliphatic monocarboxylic acids found in vegetable and animal fats, including waxes and butters. Capric, caprilyc, lauric, myristic, oleic, palmitic, stearic. They can be saturated or unsaturated. Fatty acids frequently occur in ester form, including mono-, di-, and tri-glycerides and are obtained by hydrolysis of fats. Used in cosmetics as emollients, stabilizers, thickeners and more.

FATTY ACID ESTERS – Some are natural, like glycerides, waxes and butters, and most are synthetic, like detergents and other surfactants.

FATTY ALCOHOLS – Solid alcohols made from fatty acids. Cetyl, lauryl, oleyl, stearyl.

FIXATIVE – A chemical that reduces evaporation of a fragrance and it makes it lasts longer. Some are natural, some synthetic.

FORMALDEHYDE – A colourless gas obtained by oxidation of methyl alcohol. Its vapours are highly irritating to mucous membranes. Formaldehyde has been abandoned as preservative long time ago, but its derivatives have been in use. It is an ingredient in nail hardeners, nail polish and other cosmetics. Highly toxic.


GALACTURONIC ACID – Obtained from pectin, it is used in creams and lotions together with allantoin.

GELATIN – Animal protein used as a thickener and film-forming agent in food and cosmetic industry.

GERANIOL – Aromatic alcohol that is a component of many essential oils. Also geranyl acetate, geranyl butyrate esters, all are used in perfumery.

GLUCOSE – Natural sugar occurring in blood, fruits and some grains. Used in confectionery, and in cosmetics as an anti-irritant and filler.

GLUCOSE GLUTAMATE – Occurs naturally along with glucose. It is an ester of glucose and amino acid glutamic acid. Used as a humectant in cosmetics.

GLUCURONIC ACID – A carbohydrate widely distributed in animals.

GLUTAMIC ACID – A nonessential amino acid, usually manufactured from vegetable protein. It is widely present in a variety of foods; used in foods to enhance flavours and as salt substitute, also used to treat epilepsy and stomach ailments. In cosmetics, used as an antioxidant, and softener in permanent wave solutions to prevent hair damage. Also glutamates, its salts. Glutamic acid is responsible for one of the five basic tastes in the human sense of taste (umami).

GLUTAMINE – A nonessential amino acid.

GLYCERETH –12-26 – Polyethylene glycol ethers of glycerin. Used as emollients and emulsifiers in cosmetics. Synthetic.

GLYCERIDES – A large class of compounds that are esters of glycerin. Some are natural, some synthetic. Mono-, di- and tri-glycerides.

GLYCERIN – Glycerol. Widely present in natural fats and oils, both animal and vegetable. Can be produced naturally or synthetically. Occurs in a form of its many esters. It is thick, syrupy, and sweet. Used in cosmetics as humectant and emollient, in everything from lipsticks to hand creams.

GLYCO– Prefix which means ‘sweet’.

GLYCOLIC ACID – Organic alpha-hydroxy acid, occurs naturally in sugar cane juice and fruit. Used widely in creams or solutions in concentrations ranging from 5 – 70%. The higher the concentration the lower the pH and the greater the damage to the tissue (i.e. ‘chemical peel’).

GLYCOLIPIDS – Natural compounds in which sugar is attached to lipids. Their role is to provide energy and serve as cellular markers.

GLYCOPROTEINS – Compounds consisting of carbohydrate (sugar) and protein. They occur in extracellular areas, connective tissue, play important role in immuno response and reproductive cycle.

GLYCOLS – Propylene glycol. Ethylene glycol. Carbitol. Diethylene glycol. A group of syrupy alcohols derived from hydrocarbons (petroleum, coal) with two hydroxyl groups. Used in cosmetics as solvents and humectants. Since hydrocarbons occur in nature, although not as part of living organisms and not in a sense what most people would consider when they use a term ‘natural’, these alcohols can fall into that category, based on their source of origin. Propylene glycol is considered safe by many, and unsafe by just as many. The rest are recognized as more toxic.

GLYCOSIDES – Compounds in which sugar is bound to a non-sugar component, which can be easily released through hydrolysis. They are widely present in the living organisms and play very important roles in metabolism. Many drugs are found among glycosides.

GLYCOSAMINOGLYCANS – Mucopolysaccharides. A group of polysaccharides that play important roles in the metabolism of animals. Used in anti-aging creams.

GLYYRRHETINIC ACID – From licorice root, used in soothing preparations, also as flavouring in foods.

GUANINE – Pearl essence. Obtained from the scales of certain fish, and used in nail polish, but now mostly replaced by synthetic pearl (bismuth oxychloride) or aluminum and bronze particles.

GUMS – Dried exudates from various plants obtained when the bark is injured. Water-soluble polysaccharides, used as thickeners. Acacia, tragacanth, locust bean, karaya, and more.

GUM RESINS – Resins. Also known as oleogums – insoluble in water. Myrrh, benzoin, and more.


HAIR BLEACH – Bleaching has been practiced for thousands of years. In Ancient Rome, quicklime was mixed with lime to produce reddish gold hues. The most common bleaching agent used today is hydrogen peroxide. Adverse reactions can include burned scalp, nausea, allergic reactions and swelling of the face.

HAIR COLOR RINSE – Temporary hair colour that covers only the cuticle layer of the hair and does not affect the natural pigment inside the shaft. The colors used are azo dyes. Reactions that occur can be caused by any of the accompanying ingredients used, including the dyes.

HAIR COLORING – Permanent hair colouring will change the pigment of the hair and will remain as such until the new hair grows, or is being cut. There are natural or synthetic organic colors, and metallics. Natural are henna and camomile, they are more difficult to work with to produce the desired shade. Synthetic dyes, such as amino- and para- derivatives, work by oxidation. When applied, the development of the shade will depend on the release of oxygen from another compound, such as hydrogen peroxide. Allergic reactions and skin rashes are common. Some of the dyes are suspected to be carcinogenic.

HAIR CONDITIONERS – The are supposed to undo the damage from other hair preparations, like bleaches and dyes, also the drying effect from the detergents in shampoos, or the sun. Conditioners include humectants (glycerin, propylene glycol, sorbitol, urea) , finishing agents (isopropyl myristate, balsam) and emulsions (natural or synthetic).

HAIR LACQUERS AND SPRAYS – They usually contain polyvinylpyrrrolidone (PVP), similar to plastics, which stiffens the hair. There are also glycerin, polyethylene glycol, sorbitol, cetyl alcohol, silicone, and many other ingredients. The propellant in aerosols is usually freon. Most sprays can cause eye damage and lung irritations. Pump sprays are a safer choice over aerosols.

HERBAL SHAMPOOS – They mostly contain saponins, a group of compounds found in many plants. Saponins can produce foam, although not nearly as much as detergents, they can also help with emulsifying. Saponins can be irritating to the skin.

HESPERIDIN – A natural bioflavonoid.

HEXACHLOROPHENE – A synthetic preservative. It was widely used in baby products and acne preparations in the 60s. Original developers who held the patent would only sell it to the companies that proved that they were using this compound safely, and not for toothpaste and mouthwashes, but after the patent expired no restrictions were made. It has been shown as toxic, also that it is absorbed through the skin, and it has been largely replaced by a similar product Triclosan (see entry).

HEXANOL – Hexyl alcohol. Occurs naturally in seeds and fruits of certain plants. Used as antiseptic and preservative.

HISTIDINE – An essential amino acid, used as nutrient.

HUMECTANT – A substance used to preserve the moisture content of the material i.e. prevent drying. Glycerin, propylene glycol and sorbitol and most widely used humectants.

HYALURONIC ACID – Hyaluronan. A non-sulfated glycosaminoglycan distributed widely throughout the connective, epithelial and neural tissues. One of the chief components of the extracellular matrix and important in cell proliferation and migration. Widely used in cosmetics.

HYDROCARBONS – A large class of organic compounds containing only carbon and hydrogen. Petroleum, coal, natural gas, bitumen are all hydrocarbons. Term ‘petrochemicals’ refers to petrolatum, mineral oils, paraffin wax, ozokerite. Widely used in cosmetics.

HYDROGENATION – Process used to convert liquid oils into semi-solid. Hydrogenated oils are usually more stable and less susceptible to rancidity.

HYDROLYSIS – Decomposition of a compound in the presence of water. Examples can be anything from hydrolyzed proteins to esters, salts, carbohydrates and more. Essential in many metabolic processes.

HYDROQUINONE – Occurs naturally but mostly manufactured now. Used as a bleaching agent. It has many toxic effects if ingested or injected, on the skin it can cause allergic reactions.


IMIDAZOLE – Used to control pest, derived from benzene (a solvent obtained from coal), an inhibitor of growth instead of a poison.

IMIDAZOLIDINYL UREA – The most commonly used cosmetic preservative after parabens. It is also the second most identified cosmetic preservative to cause contact dermatitis. No known toxicity.

INOSITOL – A dietary supplement of the vitamin B family, found in plant and animal tissue. Isolated commercially from corn.

ISOPROPYL MYRISTATE – A widely used fatty acid ester derived from isopropyl alcohol and myristic acid. It was discovered to be comedogenic, which is reducing its application. The danger comes from nitrate compounds, which appear as an impurity in many cosmetic preparations, and isopropyl myristate increases their absorption.


JUGLONE – A colouring for hair dyes. It is the active colouring agent in walnuts. When mixed with an alkali, it gives a purplish red colour. No known skin toxicity.

JUNIPER TAR – Oil of Cade. The volatile oil from the wood of a pine tree. Dark brown, viscous, with a smoky odour and acrid taste. It is used in skin care preparations as an antiseptic and healing agent.


KAOLIN – A white or yellowish clay, found originally in China. Used widely in make-up. Also in production of porcelain, pottery and bricks.

KATHON CG – Octhilinone. A fungicide and bactericide used in cosmetics and shampoos. Effective against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, yeasts and fungi. Effective in low concentrations. Not toxic but it can cause sensitivities.

KERATIN – Animal protein obtained from the horns, hoofs, feathers, quills and hairs of various animals. Used in hair products.

KERATOLYTICS – Products that loosen skin flakes and remove them easily from the skin surface. Useful in removing warts. Now extremely popular in strong ‘chemical’ peels.

KOHL – A preparation of antimony or soot mixed with other ingredients, used originally in the Middle East to darken the edges of eyelids. It is even applied on the lids of infants sometimes. It increases the lead levels in blood. Incidents of adverse reactions are very high. Kohl that contains lead is prohibited for use or sale.


LACTIC ACID – Normally present in blood and muscle tissue as a metabolic by-product of glucose and glycogen. Present in sour milk, beer, sauerkraut and other products made by bacterial fermentation. Used in skin care peels and fresheners. It can be caustic if in high concentration.

LANOLIN – Wool wax, Wool Fat. A product of the oil glands of sheep. A water-absorbing and a natural emulsifying material, also emollient. Chemically it is a wax instead of a fat. Different fractions of lanolin are used, i.e. lanolin alcohols, lanolin oil. It is well absorbed by the skin, partly because it is rather similar to the sebum in human skin. It causes allergic reactions in some instances. It is widely used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Due to the pesticide residue found in lanolin, there are now highly purified forms available.

LAURIC ACID – A common constituent of vegetable fats, especially coconut oil and palm kernel oil. It is widely used to produce detergents and surfactants with high foaming properties. Like all fatty acids, an emollient and a thickener.

LAURIC ALCOHOL – A fatty alcohol used much like its acid.

LECITHIN – A natural antioxidant, emollient, emulsifier and spreading agent. It is found in all living organisms and commercially obtained from egg yolk and soya beans.

LEUCINE – An essential amino acid.

LINALOOL – Occurs naturally in many essential oils, and it has a strong floral scent. Also Linalyl acetate.

LINOLEIC ACID – An essential fatty acid.

LIPIDS – A class of lipophilic substances that together with proteins and carbohydrates constitute the structure of cells. Lipids include fats, oils, waxes, phospholipids, steroids and others. In cosmetic preparations, they are emollient and moisturizing.

LIPOSOMES – Microscopic spheres manufactured from a variety of fatty substances, including phospholipids. When properly mixed with water, phospholipids form liposome spheres, which can trap any substance that will dissolve in water or oil. They are used as delivery system through the skin.

LIPSTICK – Primarily a mixture of oil and wax with dye dispersed in the oil, with the effect of staining the lips. The problems with lipsticks can come from the dyes used.

LYSINE – An essential amino acid.


MAGNESIUM AND ITS SALTS – Used as thickeners, colouring and anticaking agents, perfume carrier. Nontoxic. Magnesium sulfate is also known as Epsom salts, used as a bath salt to relive muscle tension and stress, also to prevent certain seizures.

MATRIXYL – Palmitoyl pentapeptide-3. A chain of 5 aminoacids attached to palmitic acid (a fatty acid), which enhances its absorption. Demonstrated positive effect on the dermal matrix and increased production of collagen, elastin and glucosaminoglycans, but results in vivo are varied between different individuals. As far as anti-wrinkle ingredients go, it doesn’t have the side-effects of Retin-A, but it is a new ingredient and the long-term effects are yet to be established.

MENTHOL – It can be obtained naturally from peppermint and other mint oils. It cools the skin and is used in cosmetics, food and pharmaceutical industries. A local anesthetic. Nontoxic in low doses but if higher than 3% it can be irritating.

MERCURY COMPOUNDS – Mercury salts were widely used in bleaching creams but were banned in the 1970s when it was established that prolonged use resulted with mercury accumulation in the body. Mercury can be absorbed through the skin and the toxicity is high.

METHANOL – Methyl alcohol. Wood alcohol. Obtained by distillation of wood. Flammable and poisonous. Better solvent than ethyl alcohol.

METHIONINE – An essential amino acid.

METHYL ACETATE – Occurs naturally in coffee and peppermint oil, with a pleasant apple odour. Used in perfumery to emphasize floral notes, also as a solvent for many resins and oils. It may be irritating to the respiratory tract.

METHYL PARABEN – One of the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics. Can cause allergic reactions and it is considered by the industry as a relatively nonirritating, nonsensitizing and nontoxic. This and other parabens are usually the target of those who seek natural products but in fact very few products are paraben-free.

METHYL SALICYLATE – Oil of Wintergreen. An anti-inflammatory, local anesthetic, and disinfectant used in toothpaste, and mouthwashes, also in food industry. Obtained from the sweet birch, cassie and wintergreen, but could be also synthetic. Can be a strong irritant to the skin and mucous membranes.

METHYL SULFONYL METHANE – MSM, dimethylsulfone. An organic sulfur compound that occurs naturally in some plants. Popular as a supplement and treatment for osteoarthritis. Although there are studies supporting the claims, they are a few and not considered substantial enough at this stage.

MICA – A group of minerals that separate into thin sheets. They vary in colour and can be used as a lubricant and a colouring in cosmetics. Nontoxic to the skin.

MICROCRYSTALLINE WAX – Any of various plastic materials that are obtained from petroleum. Different from paraffin waxes in that they have a higher melting point, higher viscosity and much finer crystals. Used in nail polishes and make-up.

MINERAL OIL – A mixture of refined liquid hydrocarbons derived from petroleum. Used widely in cosmetics, including baby products. Considered nontoxic.

MUCILAGE – A solution in water of the sticky parts of the vegetable substances. Used as soothing applications to the mucous membranes.

MUCOUS MEMBRANES –The thin layers of tissue that line the respiratory, genital and intestinal tracts and are kept moist by a sticky substance called mucus. These membranes line the nose and the mouth as well and are often exposed to air.

MYRISTIC ACID – A fatty acid that occurs naturally in butters, coconut oil and most animal and vegetable fats. Used as most other fatty acids, also its alcohol, myristic alcohol.


NAIL POLISH – Usually contain cellulose nitrate, butyl acetate, alkyl esters, toluene, glycol derivatives, gums, hydrocarbons (aromatic and aliphatic), ketones, phosphoric acid and more. Many different irritations can be reported.

NAIL POLISH REMOVER – It contains mostly the same ingredients like the nail polish, without the dyes, and with addition of acetone. Some of the components are very toxic and can cause different kinds of irritation and damage.

NIACIN, NIACINAMIDE – Nicotinic acid. Nicotinamide. Part of the vitamin B complex.

NITROCELLULOSE – Esters obtained by adding nitrate to cellulose. Solid and flammable. Used in skin protective creams, nail polishes, and polish removers. No known toxicity.

NITROSAMINES – Found in many foods, they can be produced under certain conditions in the stomach as well. They are regulated in food industry, where nitrates are used in curing meats, but they also appear as impurities in cosmetics. All amines or amides are capable of forming nitrosamines under favourable conditions. Ethanolamide surfactants (DEA, MEA, TEA) are the obvious suspects. Nitrosamines are proven carcinogenic in animals, but it is not known how or at what levels they become carcinogens in humans. They are present in varied degrees in many aspects of everyday life. But it is believed that tobacco is as toxic as it is through nitrosamines. Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, has shown to protect against nitrosamines. This is due to its antioxidant activity. Of other natural antioxidants, vitamin E is very good, and so may be other antioxidants as well.

NITROUS OXIDE – Laughing gas. Used as a propellant in pressurized cosmetic containers. In higher dosage it is a depressant and narcotic.

NONIONIC SURFACTANTS – A group of emulsifiers that don’t have an electric charge. Can be natural or synthetic.

NONOXYNOL COMPOUNDS – Used as nonionic surfactants and emulsifiers in cosmetics. Synthetic.


OLEIC ACID – Obtained from various animal and vegetable fats and oils. Often used in cosmetics. Unsaturated.

OLEORESIN – A natural plant product consisting of essential oil and resin extracted from a substance by a solvent. Oleoresins are often extracted from spices, and usually more potent. They are sometimes extracted for colour (examples of colour-intensifying oleoresins are those extracted from paprika and turmeric).

OLEYL ALCOHOL – Widely used for manufacture of surfactants and detergents, this is an unsaturated fatty alcohol found in fish oils.

OPACIFIERS – Used only for the appearance in cosmetics – they make a clear product cloudy. Fatty alcohols can be used, or titanium dioxide.

ORYZANOL – Ester of ferulic acid and terpene alcohol, widely found in plants. Used in flavourings and perfumes.

OXALIC ACID – Occurs naturally in many plants and vegetables. Caustic and corrosive to the skin and mucous membranes, toxic internally, used industrially for bleaching.

OXYBENZONE – Used as a sunscreening agent. It can cause reactions, including photosensitivity.

OZOKERITE – Ceresin. A naturally occurring wax-like mineral, a mixture of hydrocarbons. Naturally has a terrible smell, when refined it yields microcrystalline wax known as ceresine. Used in make-up. No know toxicity.


PALMITIC ACID – Occurs in many natural fats, and palm oil.

PANTHENOL – Belongs to vitamin B complex, also comes as panthotenic acid and its salts.

PARA-AMINOBENZOIC ACID (PABA) – Belongs to the vitamin B group. Used to be common in sun-protection lotions. It causes allergic reactions in some individuals.

PARABENS – Methyl- and propyl-paraben are the most commonly used preservatives in cosmetics. They are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. Synthetic.

PARAFFIN – Obtained by distillation from wood, coal, petroleum or shale oil. A hydrocarbon, mineral wax. Pure paraffin is considered nontoxic but it may have impurities, which may cause irritations and eczema.

PECTIN – Emulsifying agent used instead of gums in toothpaste, hair-setting lotions and protective creams. Pectins are found in roots, stems and fruits of plants. In cosmetics they are used as gelling agents, and have soothing properties.

PEG – Abbreviation for polyethylene glycol/polyethylene, used in making nonionic surfactants in reactions with natural oils. Synthetic. The low molecular weight polyethylene glycols can cause hives and eczema; the higher ones are less sensitizing.

PELARGONIC ACID – Occurs naturally in cocoa and lavender, used as a flavouring. A strong irritant.

PEPTIDES AND POLYPEPTIDES – Shorter chains of amino acids; further combined, they create proteins. For cosmetic use, proteins are usually hydrolyzed to smaller fractions, peptides, to reduce their large molecular size. Currently in the cosmetic market, there are many synthesized peptides imitating different sequences from natural proteins, targeting wrinkles and aging of the skin.

PETROLATUM – Vaseline. Petroleum jelly. Paraffin jelly. Purified mixture of hydrocarbons from petroleum. Widely used in cosmetics. Generally considered nontoxic but it can cause allergic reactions.

pH – The scale used to measure acidity or alkalinity. Its values are on the scale of 14, with pH 7 being the neutral value of water. Below 7 the solution is acidic, above 7 it is alkaline. The further away from 7 the stronger either acidity or alkalinity i.e. low pH means high acidity. Skin and hair are naturally acidic, which makes them less favourable to bacteria and parasites, blood is pH 7.3, which is slightly alkaline. Soap and detergents are alkaline.

PHENOL – Carbolic acid. Obtained from coal tar. Occurs in small amounts in urine. Used as disinfectant and anesthetic for the skin. Used in shaving creams and hand lotions. Highly toxic.

PHENOXYETHANOL – Used as a fixative in perfumes, bactericide, insect repellent and topical antiseptic. Derivative of phenol.

PHENYLACETIC ACID – Occurs naturally in the oil of neroli, Japanese mint and black pepper. It has a honey-like odour. Used in perfumery and manufacture of soaps.

PHENYLALANINE – An essential amino acid.

PHOSPHOLIPIDS – Phosphatides. Complex fat substances found in all living cells. Lecithin is one example. They contain phosphoric acid and nitrogen and are used widely in cosmetics as moisturizers and emollients.

PHOSPHORIC ACID – Used in hair tonics, nail polishes and skin fresheners. Not toxic in recommended concentrations.

PHOTOSENSITIVITY – A condition in which topical application or ingestion of certain compounds can result with skin rashes and other skin problems when the skin is exposed to the sun. Photosensitivity is most common with fragrance ingredients and sunscreening agents.

PHOTOXICITY – Reaction to sunlight that results in inflammation.

PHTHALATES – Widely used in today’s world. Suspected carcinogens and mutagenic agents.

POLY – Prefix meaning ‘many’ and used for polymers.

POLYMERS – A substance formed by combining many small molecules (monomers). Examples of polymers are many; they can also be natural or synthetic. Plastics, fibres, rubber, human tissue, proteins and so on, are all polymers.

POLYSORBATE 1 to 85 – Synthetic emulsifiers and stabilizers widely used in cosmetics. Polysorbate 60 is a condensate of sorbitol with stearic acid, and polysorbate 8 a condensate of sorbitol with oleic acid. Trade name: Tweens.

PROPYLENE GLYCOL – One of the most widely used cosmetic ingredients, usually as a solvent, wetting agent and a humectant. It has been linked to sensitizing reactions. A derivative of petroleum. It is also used in manufacture of surfactants. It has low toxicity however it is not popular in natural personal care products, or any natural products since it is not natural, or of natural origin.

PROPYLPARABEN – See parabens and methylparaben.

PROTEINS – Parts of every living cell. Complex combinations of amino acids, they take part in building the cell itself, also in every metabolic function. In cosmetics, the use of proteins and their hydrolysates has been on the rise.


QUATERNARY AMMONIUM COMPOUNDS – A wide variety of preservatives, surfactants, antiseptics and deodorants used in cosmetics. Benzalkonium chloride is one of the most popular. These are synthetic derivatives of ammonium chloride. They can all be toxic, depending on the concentration. Natural quaternary ammonium compounds also exist, but rarely; one among them is choline, a vitamin from the B group of vitamins.


RESINS – The brittle substance, usually transparent or translucent, formed from the hardened secretions of plants. They rarely occur in nature; among natural resins are dammar, elemi and sandarac. Synthetic resins are varied polymers, sulfonamide resins, polyvinyl acetate. They are widely used in cosmetics, and toxicity depends on the variety used.

RESORCINOL – Used as an antiseptic, astringent, and preservative, anti-itching agent, in hair and skin preparations, also for acne. Obtained from various resins, a phenol derivative. Irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. May cause allergic reactions.

RETIN – A – Retinoic acid. Tretinoin. A vitamin A derivative, used as a medication for acne, shown efficacy in reducing wrinkles.

RETINOL – Vitamin A. Also comes in a form of esters, retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate.

Studies have shown that Retinol will be released from the ester once absorbed into the skin, in small amounts. Retinol has powerful antioxidant and anti-aging effects, however it has side effects and it is highly unstable and difficult to formulate with. In addition, it is regulated as a drug. 

RETINYL PALMITATE – Retinyl palmitate is an ester obtained by combining Retinol and Palmitic acid. It is far less effective than Retinol, but it still has retinoid activity. The reason for its presence in many products, from food to skin care, is that it is close to natural original (obtained by simple esterification with natural substrates), it is far more stable than Retinol, and it exhibits antioxidant activity.

Compared to Retinol, Retinyl palmitate is a stable, safer, and less potent alternative.

RIBOFLAVIN – belongs to vitamin B group, vitamin B2.

RICINOLEIC ACID – A mixture of fatty acids found in the seeds of the castor bean. Added to Turkey-red, used in soaps and as an emollient, also believed responsible for the laxative effect of the castor oil.

ROSIN – Colophony. A residue left after distilling the volatile oil from the oleoresin from various species of pine trees. Used in soaps, hair lacquers, depilatories and the manufacture of varnishes and fireworks. It can cause contact dermatitis.


SACCHARATED LIME – Produced by action of lime on sugar. Used as a buffer in cosmetics and preservative. No known toxicity.

SALICYLIC ACID – Also its salts and esters. Occurs naturally in sweet birch, wintergreen and other plants. Synthetically produced from phenol. Used as an antimicrobial agent, also for skin peelings and acne. It is anti-pruritic (anti-itch). It can be absorbed through the skin and depending on the concentrations, it can exhibit varying degrees of toxicity.

SAPONIFICATION – The process of making a fatty acid salt by treatment with an alkali, which results with soap. To saponify is to convert to soap.

SAPONIN – Numerous natural glycosides that occur in plants, such as quillaja, sarsaparilla. Used as emulsifying and foaming agents, but not as strong bubble producers as synthetic detergents.

SARCOSINES – Natural acids found in sea urchins and starfish; used in a form of esters and salts as anionic surfactants: lauroyl sarcosinate, oleoyl sarcosine, sodium myristoyl sarcosinate (SMS), and more. Milder than sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate; used in shampoos, shaving creams, foaming cleansers and make-up.

SCLEROTIUM GUM – A gum produced by the bacteria Sclerotium rolfssii.

SD ALCOHOLS – All ethyl alcohols denaturated in accordance with government regulations (a substance is added to the ethyl alcohol to spoil its taste and make it non-drinkable).

SELENIUM SULFIDE – A mineral used in antidandruff shampoos. It may irritate the eyes, also workers working with selenium experience many adverse reactions.

SEQUESTERING AGENT – A preservative that prevents physical or chemical changes affecting the colour, flavour, texture or appearance of the product. Example is EDTA, which binds metal ions and prevents their effect on shampoos and other products.

SHAMPOOS – People used to wash their hair with soap; the liquid detergent shampoos were introduced in 1930s. Today there are liquid shampoos, then cream shampoos and the soapless shampoos. Variety of detergents are used in shampoos, from coconut oil derivatives to triethanolamine dodecylbenzene sulfonate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and other additives as humectants, finishing agents to give hair lustre such as mineral oil and lanolin, conditioning agents and preservatives. Most complaints to FDA come from the use of shampoos and the irritation caused by them.

SILICA – Occurs abundantly in nature. It makes 12% of rocks. Sand is silica. Upon heat treatment is becomes very porous and it is used as absorbent and adsorbent in different preparations.

SILICA GEL – Silicic acid. White gelatinous substance obtained by action of acids on sodium silicate. Inert material, insoluble in water and acids. Absorbs water readily. It is used as a dehumidifying and dehydrating agent.

SILICONES – A large group of fluid oils, rubbers, resins, and compounds derived form silica. They are water-repellent, and stable over a wide range of temperatures. Used in after-shave preparations, hair products, protective creams. No known toxicity on the skin.

SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE – SLES. The sodium salt of sulfated ethoxylated lauric alcohol. Widely used in cosmetics. The common belief that SLES is a carcinogen is dismissed by CTFA and American Cancer Society. Although it can be irritating to the skin, the toxicity may come from some impurities, including dioxanes. See alkyl sulfates.

SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE – SLS. Also SDS. A detergent, wetting agent and emulsifier, commonly referred to as ‘derived from coconut oil’. Widely used, drying to the skin and considered a skin irritant. Similar to SLES, the claims that it is a carcinogen have been dismissed by offical bodies. See alkyl sulfates.


SORBIC ACID – Occurring naturally in the berries of the mountain ash. Also made synthetically. Used in cosmetics as preservative and humectant A mold and yeast inhibitor. Also its salts.

SORBITAN – Produced from sorbitol.

SORBITAN FATTY ACID ESTERS – Spans. Widely used in cosmetics as emulsifiers and stabilizers. Sorbitan laureate, sorbitan oleate, sorbitan palmitate, and more.

SORBITOL – A humectant, used as a replacement for glycerin. It occurs in different berries and in variety of fruits. Not toxic externally.

SPERMACETI – Cetyl palmitate. A wax derived from the head of a sperm whale. Illegal to use for quite some time now; used to have a wide application in creams and toiletries.

SQUALENE – Obtained from shark liver oil. Also occurs in olive oil, wheat germ oil and rice bran oil, but in smaller amounts. Found in human sebum and all higher organisms but commercially produced mostly from shark liver oil. Used as a moisturizer in cosmetics and a fixative in perfumery. It is chemically a hydrocarbon.

STEARALCONIUM CHLORIDE – Quaternary ammonium compound used in hair conditioners.

STEARETH 3-…-100 – Polyethylene glycol ethers of stearyl alcohol. Used as emollients and emulsifiers. Synthetic chemicals.

STEARIC ACID – It occurs in tallow and other animal fats, also in coconut oil and other hard vegetable fats. One of the most commonly used fatty acids; it has a wide cosmetic application, from soaps to creams, deodorants and make-up. Stearates are esters of stearic acid, both natural and synthetic.

STEARYL ALCOHOL – Stenol. A fatty alcohol, used to be produced from sperm whale oil, also found in other animal fats, but now mostly obtained by hydrogenation of stearic acid. Used on its own or in combination with cetyl alcohol, as an emollient, has a wide application in cosmetics.

STEROIDS – This is a class of compounds with many biological actives. Sex hormones and cortisone are steroids. Natural and synthetic steroids all have the same basic molecular structure to which different chemical groups are attached. This is what makes them so potent physiologically – not only do they exhibit an action of their own, but they can also be transformed in the body to other forms.

STEROLS – A group of solid complex alcohols from animal and plant oils. Cholesterol is a sterol. No known toxicity.

SUCCINIC ACID – Occurs naturally in animals and plants. It is used as a germicide in mouthwashes, also as a buffer and a neutralizing agent. Esters of succinic acid are used as surfactants (synthetic).

SUCROSE – Sugar. Cane sugar. Saccharose. A food and a sweetener, the starting material in fermentation processes, antioxidant, preservative, demulcent, and a substitute for glycerin. Workers who handle raw sugar may develop rashes and other skin problems, but sugar is not toxic in cosmetics.

SULFATED CASTOR OIL – See Turkey-red oil.

SULFATED OILS – Oils or fatty acids treated with sulfuric acid, which makes them water-soluble. Used as wetting agents and emulsifiers.

SULFITES – Sodium, Potassium and Ammonium. Preservatives, antioxidants and antibrowning agents in foods. Many packaged foods, including fresh, frozen and prepared ones contain sulfites. They are especially high in potatoes, dried fruits and shrimp and other seafood. Some people are sensitive to sulfites and they can have severe reactions to them.

SULFUR – A chemical element that occurs in a free form and in variety of chemical compounds. It is a part of many compounds in the human body, including hair. It is used in shampoos and skin preparations, especially the ones for acne. It can be toxic in higher concentrations.

SUNSCREENS – Preparations that use substances effective in reducing the power of sun rays to burn the skin. The cosmetic market has seen a huge expansion of the sunscreens segment, especially after the connection has been made between overexposure to the sun, or frequent sunburns, and skin cancer. However, there is no significant reduction in skin care occurrences to match the steep rise in use of sunscreens. On the other hand, vitamin D production in the skin is possible only by exposure to the sun. Reduced production of vitamin D can cause many health problems. Like with everything else, caution and moderation are the best course of action.
Sunscreening agents approved by FDA:
• p-Aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
• Avobenzone
• Cinoxate
• Dioxybenzone
• Homosalate
• Menthyl anthranilate
• Octocrylene
• Octyl methoxycinnamate (Octinoxate)
• Octyl salicylate
• Oxybenzone
• Padimate O
• Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid (Ensulizole)
• Sulisobenzone
• Titanium dioxide
• Trolamine salicylate
• Zinc oxide (the list copied from Wikipedia)

SURFACTANTS – Surface active agents. They lower water’s surface tension and allow it to spread out and penetrate more easily. There are four major categories: anionic, nonionic, cationic and amphoteric. Anionic surfactants carry a negative electrical charge and are stain and dirt removers in household cleaning agents. Nonionic surfactants have no electrical charge and being resistant to hard water and dissolving in oil and grease, they are used for tough cleaning areas. Cationic surfactants carry a positive electrical charge. They are primarily quaternary ammonium compounds, and are used in hair conditioners and fabric softeners as friction reducers and sanitizers. Amphoteric surfactants can be either positively or negatively charged, depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the water. They are milder and widely used in cosmetics.


TALC– Finally powdered magnesium silicate, a mineral. Widely used in baby powders and make-up. Prolonged inhalation can cause lung problems because it is chemically similar to asbestos. Talcum powder has been suspected in some forms of cancer but no definitive conclusion has been reached yet.
TARTARIC ACID – Widely distributed in nature but usually obtained as a by-product in wine industry. Effervescent acid used in bath salts, denture powders, hair products, and depilatories. In can be mildly irritating in strong concentrations.
TARTRAZINE – FD and C Yellow No.5. Bright orange-yellow powder used in foods, drugs and cosmetics, also as a dye for silk and wool. Those allergic to aspirin are often allergic to tartrazine. It is derived from coal tar.
TEA– – Triethanolamine (see separate entry). Also see ethanolamines.
TERPENES – A class of unsaturated hydrocarbons. Components of many essential oils. The removal of terpenes (terpeneless oils) gives more stability to the oils and a more stable, stronger odour.
THIAMINE HCL – Vitamin B1.
THIOGLYCOLATES – Obtain by a reaction between chloroacetic acid and hydrogen sulfide; strong unpleasant odour. Ammonium salts are used in permanent wave preparations, calcium salts in depilatories. They can cause hair breakage, irritations, and allergic reactions.
THREONINE – Essential amino acid.
THYMOL – A component of many essential oils. Used in mouthwashes, and in after-shaves, soaps and perfumery. It destroys molds and is used as a topical anti-fungal agent. It can cause allergic reactions.
TITANIUM DIOXIDE – A mineral that occurs naturally in three different crystal forms. Used widely as a white pigment in make-up and an opacifier in other cosmetics. Also used in sunscreens. No know toxicity when used externally, but inhalation should be avoided.
TOCOPHEROL – Vitamin E. Obtained by vacuum distillation from vegetable oils, it is widely used as an antioxidant in cosmetics and foods.
TOLUENE – Obtained from petroleum or by distilling Tolu Balsam. Used in nail polish as a solvent. It resembles benzene but it is less toxic, also less flammable. Many health concerns have been linked, or suspected to be related to toluene.
TRICLOSAN – A broad-spectrum preservative used in cosmetics, also in deodorants.
TRIETHANOLAMINE – A coating agent for fresh fruit and vegetables and widely used in surfactants. It is toxic, mostly due to its alkalinity it damages the gastrointestinal tract. It is also an irritant, one of the most common sensitizers in cosmetic emulsifiers.
TRIMYRISTIN – Glyceril trimyristate. Solid triglyceride of myristic acid, found in many vegetable fats and oils, particularly in coconut oil. Used as an emollient. Other triglycerides: triolein, tristearin, tripalmitin, and more.
TRISODIUM PHOSPHATE – Obtained from phosphate rock. Highly alkaline, used in shampoos, cuticle softeners, bubble baths and bath salts for its softening and cleaning properties. Phosphorus is used as a mineral supplement for foods. It can be irritating due to its alkalinity.
TURKEY-RED OIL – Sulfated castor oil. One of the first surfactants.
TURPENTINE – Any of the various resins obtained from coniferous trees. It is a natural solvent comprised of pine oils, camphenes and terpenes. Used as a solvent and thinner for paints and varnishes, readily absorbed through the skin, it is irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. If inhaled in high dosage, it can be fatal.


UNSAPONIFIABLES – The fraction of oils and butters that doesn’t get broken down in the course of processing, or refining.

UREA – Carbamide. A product of protein metabolism excreted in urine. Used in food industry, also in deodorants. The largest application for urea is in production of fertilizers. Commercially produced from ammonia and carbon dioxide.
USNIC ACID – Antibacterial compound found in lichen. No known toxicity.


VALINE – An essential amino acid.



WAXES – Obtained from animals, insects and plants. There are also mineral waxes, and synthetic. Wide application in cosmetics. Waxes are solid lipids, with certain plasticity, a melting point usually above 45C, and low viscosity when melted. They are insoluble in water and hydrophobic. Chemically, they are mostly esters of various fatty acids, and are less greasy than fats. Beeswax, carnauba, candelilla, jojoba, shellac, lanolin, spermaceti, and more.


XANTHAN GUM – A gum produced by a pure culture fermentation of a carbohydrate with Xanthamonas campestris. Also called corn sugar gum. Used as a thickener, emulsifier and a stabilizer. No known toxicity.


YEAST – Fungi that are a dietary source of folic acid. It produces enzymes that will convert sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. No known toxicity.


ZINC – A chemical element, Zn. It is mostly used as a protective coating to other metals. It has been used in making alloys since the ancient times. Zinc is an essential element in the growth of many organisms, both plant and animal. A deficiency in zinc in humans has been found to retard growth and produce anemia. Some skin problem, including acne, may benefit form zinc supplements. In nutrition, zinc in combination with protein and vitamin C is believed to promote healing.
ZINC OXIDE – A mineral occurring in nature, insoluble in water. Used as an antiseptic, astringent and in protective creams. It is believed to promote healing in skin disorders. In cosmetics, it is used in make-up, baby products, shaving creams, antiperspirants, and more.
ZINC STEARATE – a mixture of the zinc salts of stearic and palmitic acids. A soap. Used in both cosmetics and pharmaceuticals as an adhesive, and a colourant. Not toxic on the skin but may be harmful if inhaled.
Winter, Ruth. A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. New York, Crown Trade Books, 1994.
Hampton, Aubrey. Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care. Tampa, Organica Press, 1987.
Wikipedia and numerous other sources on the Internet.
Reproduction of this list is strictly forbidden.
Natural Skin Care from i2 by Ivana K from Canada
Ivana Knezevic Contributor
Owner , Formulator i2 by Ivana K
Ivana Knezevic is a Cosmetic Chemist, and Owner of i2 by Ivana K in Canada.
Ivana Knezevic Contributor
Owner , Formulator i2 by Ivana K
Ivana Knezevic is a Cosmetic Chemist, and Owner of i2 by Ivana K in Canada.
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