Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid when formulating

It’s getting harder to be a cosmetic formulator these days. It used to be you could mix together any reasonable ingredients to get the performance you wanted and everyone was fine with it. Formulators didn’t even have to list the ingredients on the products!  But times have changed. Now, you need to not only achieve product performance, but you have to do it with ingredients that are acceptable to your marketers, government regulators, and discerning consumers. That means a lot of standard, reliable ingredients have to be avoided.  We’ll examine which ones in the rest of this post.

Banned by regulators

Before continuing it should be noted that there are some ingredients banned for use in cosmetics.  The FDA bans these 10 ingredients (or classes of ingredients) while the EU lists over 1300. This is a misleading comparison because the EU regulations list ingredients that no formulator would use in the formulation. For example, Arsenic & Cyanide are banned by the EU but not by the FDA.

Of course, just because an ingredient isn’t banned by the FDA doesn’t mean you can use it. The overreaching rule in both regulatory frameworks is that it is illegal to produce unsafe cosmetic products.

Vilified Ingredients

While regulatory agencies ban ingredients for proven health concerns, there are a number of sources that call for ingredient bans without supporting science. These include scaremongering NGO’s, dubious natural marketers, biased retail outlets and misinformed bloggers. And despite the fact that an ingredient is perfectly safe to use, your company may ask you to avoid it due to its reputation.  Here are some ingredients you may have to avoid in your formulating.


Pretty much all formulas need cosmetic preservatives, but lots of cosmetic marketers want to use the phrase “preservative free.”  This puts formulators in a bind.  Also, since preservatives are meant to kill cells it’s not surprising high levels can have negative side effects.  Some of the most effective and reliable preservatives including Parabens, Formaldehyde donors, and Methylisothiazolinones have developed such poor reputations that many formulators just avoid them.  Even an ingredient like Phenoxyethanol is viewed negatively among some consumer groups.

There are some alternatives.  For example, some formulators have had success using organic acids and their salts Benzoic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Potassium Sorbate or Sodium Benzoate. Benzyl Alcohol and Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate are other options. These aren’t nearly as easy or effective to work with but they can work in some systems.


Surfactants are the most widely used functional ingredients in cosmetics so it’s not surprising some of them have developed poor reputations. Unfortunately, this includes some of the most effective and versatile ingredients.  Sulfates like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate are best avoided for some consumer groups. Also, you may want to stay away from diethanolamines like Lauramide DEA or Cocamide DEA.

Finding surfactants that don’t include the word “sulfate” or have an “-eth” in its name is one option for formulators. Betaines can be a good substitute for diethanolamines. Expect your formulas to be more expense and not work as well, but consumers may be more inclined to buy them.

Conditioning Ingredients

Since a number of the best conditioning ingredients come from synthetic chemistry and the petroleum industry, they have naturally developed a bad reputation. This includes ingredients like Petrolatum, Mineral Oil, and Propylene Glycol.  Silicones also get swept up in this anti-man-made ingredient furor, so Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone are not good replacements.

Alternatives for these ingredients include materials derived from plants like natural oils, butters and waxes.


Talc (hydrous magnesium silicate) is a powdered ingredient used in cosmetics to absorb moisture and as a filler. The primary concern about talc is that it is linked to ovarian cancer. This is based on a study published during the 1990s. Subsequent reviews of all the available data has demonstrated that talc is safe when used as directed. The most recent talc data supports this position.  However, as demonstrated by the fact that cosmetic companies have recently lost a few high-profile court cases related to talc, science doesn’t always matter.

Some alternatives to talc include Corn starch, Tapioca Starch, Oat Flour and perhaps Baking Soda. They won’t work for all talc formulas but they are worth a shot.


We add fragrance to cosmetics to make products smell better or to reinforce a marketing story. Cosmetics without fragrance just don’t sell as well.  Unfortunately, some groups have convinced consumers all fragrances are awful.

You can make some of your formulas without fragrance but they won’t be as well-liked by most consumers as fragrance containing alternatives. You might try using natural oils instead of fragrance.

Color pigments

Without colorants most cosmetic formulas would be yellow or brown. Color cosmetics would not exist. Some scaremongering groups has declared that artificial colorants are carcinogenic. As usual, this claim is not supported by science.

In fact, of all the ingredients in cosmetics, colorants are the most highly regulated. Each batch of colorant must be approved by the FDA prior to use. The FDA also monitors the safety of colorants. Any color additive that is found to cause cancer in animals (or humans) may not be used in cosmetics.

That means the alternatives to color your products are strictly limited. You may be able to find some natural extracts that impart color but remember if the purpose of adding an ingredient is for color, then you are only allowed to use approved colorants from the FDA or EU.

Formulating Today

As you attempt to formulate with only ingredients that are acceptable to your consumers and your marketing department, there are two things to keep in mind.

  1. Consumers want products that perform - If a product avoids all the buzz-word bad ingredients and doesn’t solve the consumer’s problem they won’t buy it again.
  2. Consumers are not as ingredient wary / knowledgeable as you think - Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean most consumers are aware of the negative reputation of ingredients. The reality is that most consumer just don’t care.


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