Ordinary makeup ingredients with an element of surprise

Algae is used in cosmetics as an emulsifier, a barrier against irritation and a thickener.
Algae is used in cosmetics as an emulsifier, a barrier against irritation and a thickener.
(Frank Fox / Getty Images)

Common ingredients in cosmetics often hide in plain sight on the product label because of an international movement to establish uniform names, based in science and Latin. So wheat germ, prized for its vitamin E, becomes Triticum vulgare, and oatmeal, crucial to face masks through the ages, is Avena sativa.

Cosmetic manufacturer Julep is trying to make labels more user-friendly by translating the Latin names into English, says Michele Lottermoser, the Seattle-based company’s vice president of product development. The more recognizable term appears in parenthesis next to the requisite scientific name.

A trend toward simplification also will be reflected in the products within the packaging, predicts Joseph C. DiNardo, a toxicologist and coauthor of “Milady’s Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary” (2014).


“Makeup that used to have five or six ingredients started getting more complicated in the 1980s,” DiNardo says. “We are going to see a return to simplicity ... back to using very simple formulations and minimizing the amount of exposure we are creating” to chemicals.

These eight relatively commonplace ingredients need no translation. But they may surprise:


Cleopatra and her court of Egyptian makeup innovators made her lipstick from a crimson color extracted from female cochineal insects that live on cactuses.

“She was the trendsetter of her time, grinding up pigments and minerals from the earth to come up with crimson lips and her signature kohl eyes,” Lottermoser says of the queen of Egypt, who died in 30 BC.

Today the red dye known as carmine or cochineal is still used to color lipstick and “makes for beautiful reds in your nail polish,” Lottermoser says. The dye is also used in rouge, cream and other cosmetics.

Fish scales


Historically, flakes of fish scales obtained primarily from herring have been added to nail polishes to give them a shimmer known as “pearl essence.” To achieve the same effect, modern-day polishes generally incorporate either synthetic pearl or aluminum and bronze particles, according to “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients” (2009).

When frosted and pearly lipsticks became popular in the 1960s, they also depended on fish scales for their glimmer. Today, lipstick — regarded as the most popular tool in the makeup kit — largely gets its sheen from mica, a mineral found in granite and other rocks.


When used topically, caffeine theoretically stimulates the skin much the same way ingesting a cup of java jolts the nervous system.

“You’ll probably start to see caffeine even more as an ingredient in makeup,” says Constance Dunn, author of the 2010 beauty manual “Practical Glamour.” “It reduces swelling and, used topically, there has been some evidence that it has benefits to the looks of one’s skin. The idea is that it evens out the skin tone.”

Caffeine is widely used in cosmetics to help ingredients penetrate the skin, in lipsticks as a flavoring and stimulant, in eye creams to reduce puffiness and in skin treatments to reduce the appearance of cellulite.



How can something widely known as “pond scum” lead to cleaner, healthier skin and hair? Yet algae and its derivatives are increasingly marketed in soaps, shampoos, creams, powders and anti-aging products.

Alginates — gelatinous substances obtained from certain seaweeds — serve as emulsifiers and as barriers against irritating chemicals in hand lotions and creams. They also are employed as thickening agents in shampoos, permanent wave sets and lotions.

Anti-aging and anti-wrinkling effects also have been attributed to “beauty serums” featuring algae, but the American Medical Assn. has denied that the organism has any therapeutic benefits.


A mixture of proteins found in wheat and other grains, gluten is marketed as an added-value ingredient in shampoos and conditioners for its protein and the gluten grain’s supposed ability to strengthen hair. Derived from the Latin word for “glue,” gluten is valued as a binder and used in hair spray as well as lipstick, mascara and moisturizers.


A trend toward gluten-free hair and makeup products is being driven by consumers with sensitivities to gluten, even though researchers say that the gluten protein is too large to be absorbed by the skin.

Faux rust

Foundation and face powder are primarily colored by iron oxides, a mineral commonly known as rust.

But there’s a key difference between the rust formed in nature through oxidation and the variety in many cosmetics. Since naturally occurring iron oxides are often contaminated with heavy metals, those used in makeup are synthesized under controlled laboratory conditions, according to Milady’s dictionary.

Cosmetic-grade iron oxides — essentially faux rust — are mined from iron salts that are then oxidized in a laboratory and purified. The minerals come in earthy shades of red, orange, brown and black that manufacturers use to add color to such products as eye shadow, blush, lipstick, bronzers and powder.



Popularized as the main ingredient in Jell-O desserts, gelatin is often used in protein shampoos because it sticks to the hair, purportedly giving it “more body,” according to “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients.”

There’s nothing pretty about gelatin’s origins: The protein is obtained by boiling the skin, bones and connective tissues of animals — mainly cows and pigs — with water. Commercially processed since the late 17th century in Holland, gelatin is also found in face masks, body lotions, hair sprays, sunscreens and other cosmetics.


Invented by DuPont chemists in the mid-20th century as a replacement for rubber in foundation garments, Lycra and its elastic properties leapfrogged to eyelashes and nails earlier this century.

British cosmetics brand Rimmel makes a line of mascara and lash extenders that incorporate microfibers of the stretchy fabric. “It’s a pretty interesting development,” says Dunn. “With Lycra, you are going to have a more dramatic look and the mascara is going to last longer.

Rimmel also has extended the use of Lycra to nail polish, creating a chip-resistant formula that absorbs “shocks with elasticity,” according to the company.