Article by: Perry Romanowski

I was recently asked this question by a reader, what is an active ingredient?

You hear this term a lot in cosmetic marketing. And according to this article in you can’t have a successful skin care line if you don’t have an active ingredient.

When it comes to cosmetics, people are using the term ‘active ingredient’ in the wrong way. Let me explain.

Active ingredients in OTC

When you are talking about products classified as Over the Counter drugs (OTC) the active ingredients are the ingredients that make the product work. So that would be the functional ingredient in all these products that have FDA monographs.

Cosmetic active ingredients

But when you are talking about cosmetic products the term “active ingredient” no longer applies. If a cosmetic had an ingredient in it that changed the biochemistry of the skin or otherwise interfered with normal skin biology, then it would be an illegal drug. Cosmetics are not allowed to have drug effects.

So in cosmetics, the term “active ingredient” is a marketing term for an ingredient that people believe has some effect but is not legally allowed to. For example, some marketers say Vitamin C is an active ingredient for skin lightening. While there may be some lab studies to show this ingredient may have an effect it is not an approved ingredient for skin lightening, so it’s not really an active ingredient. In fact, if it had an effect on skin like that it would be a mislabeled drug.

Basically, there is no such thing as an active ingredient in cosmetics. If a product has an active ingredient, it is a drug.

Here are some articles where we cover the topic of active ingredients.

Do active ingredients in cosmetics work?

Cosmetic active ingredients don’t work

Functional ingredients

This is not to say that cosmetics do not have ingredients in them that provide a benefit. However, instead of calling these “active ingredients” which is a drug term, I prefer to call them “functional ingredients.” Functional cosmetic ingredients are those whose main purpose in the formula is to deliver a benefit to a consumer. They may have some secondary effect of improving the feel of the product when it’s applied or stabilizing the formula but the primary reason they are added is for the effect they have on skin or hair.

Remember, if things marketed as “active ingredients” in skin care were actually active ingredients, the products would be illegal drugs at least here in the US.


About the Author

Perry Romanowski

Perry has been formulating cosmetic products and inventing solutions to solve consumer problems since the early 1990’s. Additionally, he has written and edited numerous articles and books, taught continuing education classes for industry scientists, and developed successful websites. His latest book is Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry 3rd Edition published by Allured.


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  2. Avatar

    Sir good evening
    I want to know about room freshener ingredients and formulation. Please tell me . delhi

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    Danny Anos

    I agree that there is nothing in cosmetics as active ingredient as it is only used in drugs. Is there any other word to describe the “functional cosmetic ingredients” you mentioned to differentiate these special functions (whitening, anti wrinkle, etc) from other cosmetic ingredients as we know that cosmetic ingredients were grouped or classified according to their functions.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      If an ingredient actually had an effect of whitening or removing wrinkles it would be a drug active agent. If it’s in cosmetics, it’s not supposed to do that so it would be a claims ingredient.

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