Artificial coloring in cosmetics and skin care
Recently there has been a dramatic increase in skin care products with beautiful but highly unnatural, almost fluorescent colors. These colors are very attractive and help beauty brands stand out in a crowded market and on photo-based sites like Instagram, but how are the colors made and do you really want them in a product you put on your skin?
What are artificial colors or dyes?
Essentially, they are dyes made from a variety of synthetic chemicals. The first major problem with this is that a single colorant can be formulated from dozens of chemicals that don’t need to be individually listed on the label. This process makes it extremely difficult to know exactly what you are exposing your body to.
What are the risks of artificial colors in cosmetics?
This depends entirely on the type of dyes used and the chemicals in them.
Many synthetic colors are associated with skin irritation and can clog pores, which impedes the skin’s natural breathing process. This can lead to acne and is far from ideal in a skin care product.
Historically, some artificial colors, used in both food and skin care, have been linked to serious health problems and even death. Fortunately, regulation now makes this less likely, but since 1973 there has been further speculation that synthetic paints could affect our internal systems. The most striking claim is that, like hyperactivity, they can be linked to ADHD (1). These links have yet to be definitively proven and depend on the specific chemical additives used.
Around the world, dermatologists, among others, are observing a dramatic increase in cases of allergies from everyday to life-threatening allergies. The increasing use of previously unknown chemicals is a prime suspect in the search for a cause of this epidemic. For this reason alone, anyone looking for a natural skin care solution should look out for these dyes in their cosmetics.
How is the use of synthetic dyes in cosmetics regulated?
This is done per country or, in the case of the EU, by a certified group. New synthetic dyes are constantly being developed and regulated as safe or prohibited. This is a very difficult area to regulate as it requires tremendous man-hours and expertise. It is interesting to note that despite efforts to harmonize what is considered safe around the world, major differences still exist. This means that a product that is classified as hazardous in the US according to the FDA can be considered legal and acceptable for use in the EU and vice versa.
How to recognize synthetic dyes in the ingredients list?
Unfortunately, this is often more difficult than it should be and depends on where you live. Detailed lists of approved colors can be found on the FDA and EU websites and on the TGA in Australia. Ultimately, these lists are dry reading as it is very difficult to gauge the potential damage.
Ultimately, it’s better to avoid unfamiliar chemical names from the cosmetic products you buy. For those of you who need further help with this, please follow the link to our guide to reading a cosmetic label.
Are there natural alternatives to artificial colors?
Yes and no. There are natural alternatives including the following
Carotenoids (E160, E161, E164), chlorophyllin (E140, E141), anthocyanins (E163) and betanin (E162) comprise four main categories of plant pigments grown to color food. Other coloring agents or specialized derivatives of these core groups are: Annatto (E160b), a reddish-orange coloring agent obtained from the seeds of the achiote Carmine (E120), a red coloring agent obtained from the cochineal insect Dactylopius coccus Elderberry juice ( E163) , lycopene (E160d), paprika (E160c), turmeric (E100)
In general, these more natural colors do not produce the extremely bright colors that you will see in some cosmetic products. It is worth noting that blue is a particularly difficult natural color. There are a few options, including one formulated from spirulina, but ultimately, if you see a skincare product that’s blue, investigate the ingredients carefully.
There is no functional reason to add color of any kind to skin care or cosmetic products. They do not improve the effectiveness of the products and are only added to improve branding and sales. This increase in sales benefits the seller and not you the buyer and should not come at the expense of your skin.
Learn more about cosmetic ingredients
How to read a cosmetic product label
The Anti-Aging Ingredient Pledge
Guide to ingredients to avoid
Browse the Anti-Aging Skincare range
1. Feingold, BF (1973). Introduction to clinical allergy. Charles C.Thomas.