When you’re talking about natural cosmetic products, you might think that the more “natural” it is, the better.
After all, you should be making a good decision for your health and normal skincare routines.
But are inactive ingredients safe?
There are many inactive ingredients that are used in conjunction with active ingredients to create natural skincare products.
Are they really safe though?
Are Inactive Ingredients Safe?
Inactive ingredients can be safe if they are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
All medications must have FDA approval, and the active ingredient is required to be listed on a drug’s label.
Inactive ingredients are known as excipients, which are added to medication for various reasons:
- Increase shelf life
- Improve bioavailability (how well the body absorbs the medication)
- Improve appearance, taste, or smell
- Bind the active ingredient to another substance so it does not break down in the stomach or intestines
- Provide stability in different storage conditions. (such as heat and moisture)
What Are Inactive Ingredients?
Inactive ingredients are the components of a cosmetic product other than the active ingredients.
Active ingredients are those that provide a specific cosmetic or therapeutic benefit to the user.
Inactive ingredients are those present in a cosmetic product but are not intended to have any cosmetic or therapeutic effect.
The types of inactive ingredients may include, among others:
- Antioxidants and chelating agents; improve product stability and appearance.
- Preservatives; which prevent microbial contamination.
- Solvents and diluents; which adjust the viscosity of a product.
- pH adjusters; which optimize product performance.
- Viscosity modifiers and stabilizers; improve consistency.
- Emollients and humectants; which enhance product appearance and feel.
- Perfumes and colorants; which enhance product appeal.
How Do I Know Which Ingredients Are Inactive?
While inactive ingredients in cosmetics are not required to be listed on the product label, they may be found in other sources such as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).
MSDS is prepared by manufacturers and importers of hazardous chemicals and is intended to provide workers and emergency personnel with procedures for handling or working with that chemical.
MSDSs include information such as physical data (molecular weight, boiling point, flash point, etc.), toxicity, health effects, first aid, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment, and spill/leak procedures.
If you need assistance finding an MSDS for a specific product please contact the manufacturer directly as FDA does not maintain a database of MSDSs for cosmetic products.
Are Inactive Ingredients Regulated?
The inactive ingredients in medications are regulated by FDA. Their safety is evaluated before approval through lab tests and/or human clinical trials.
They may also be tested for purity and quality during drug manufacturing.
Can You Be Allergic to Inactive Ingredients?
The usual suspect in allergic reactions to cosmetics is fragrance, which is an active ingredient. But some people are allergic to inactive ingredients, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, and plant extracts.
Allergies go hand-in-hand with individual preference. Some people like the scent of a particular perfume; others find it irritating.
The same can be true of chemicals that have nothing to do with the fragrance.
In fact, one study found that fragrances were the most common cause of contact dermatitis — an itchy rash — but only represented about half of the cases.
Preservatives and antioxidants often cause problems for people who are allergic to them or are sensitive to them.
One common preservative, methylisothiazolinone (MI), was recently banned from leave-on cosmetics in Europe because it was found to cause so many allergic reactions.
It’s still allowed in rinse-off products such as shampoo and conditioner, although it must carry a warning label stating that it may cause an allergic reaction.
It is also still used in leave-on products in the United States and elsewhere.
How Do You Know if You’re Allergic to an Inactive Ingredient?
Inactive ingredients are usually harmless, but some people can have allergic reactions to them.
This is why you should always do a patch test before trying a new product on your face (even if you’ve used it elsewhere).
If a product causes a reaction during a patch test, it might be due to one of its ingredients.
Are Natural Personal Care Products Free of Inactive Ingredients?
Natural personal care products are not necessarily free of inactive ingredients.
Inactive ingredients are used to improve the stability and/or performance of a product, but they don’t have any benefits for skin or hair.
Why Does It Matter if We Can’t Pronounce the Ingredients?
First of all, knowing what’s in your beauty products is a good start to understanding how they can affect you. That being said, it’s good to know which ingredients are commonly used and what they do.
It’s true that most of us can’t pronounce many of the ingredients listed on the labels of our beauty products.
But don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a very common concern.
And while it may be a bit intimidating at first glance, once you know what to look for and where to look, deciphering a label and identifying potentially harmful ingredients is actually quite simple.
The key when it comes to ingredients is to always read the label.
That’s because the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does not regulate cosmetics, which means that manufacturers do not have to submit their products for approval before they hit the marketplace.
The FDA has no authority to require companies to test their products for safety or to approve formulations before they are sold. They also don’t review product labels for accuracy.
How Can I Avoid Products With Harmful Inactive Ingredients?
If you’re concerned about the safety of these inactive ingredients, here are tips to help you avoid buying cosmetic products with harmful inactive ingredients:
1. Avoid synthetic preservatives
Avoid synthetic preservatives such as parabens (methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, benzylparaben), DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, iodopropynyl butylcarbamate and quaternium-15.
2. Avoid products with the word “fragrance” or “perfume” on the label
The word “fragrance” really means nothing at all because it’s often used as a cover-up for toxic chemicals in beauty products.
Cosmetics companies are legally allowed to hide up to three hundred different chemicals under the term “fragrance,” so avoid anything labeled with this term at all costs!
3. Check the EWG Skin Deep
Check the EWG Skin Deep website before buying a product to see what kind of chemicals are included and how safe they are.
4. Use your natural senses when shopping for cosmetics
If it doesn’t smell or look good to you, don’t use it!
5. Choose organic cosmetics
Organic cosmetics avoid using potentially harmful artificial ingredients in favor of natural chemicals and compounds that are less likely to cause harm or allergic reactions.
Recently, there has been a lot written about active versus inactive ingredients.
But inactive ingredients do have a reason for being in cosmetic products.
They have their role to play. By law, inactive ingredients cannot include any pro-oxidants or preservatives that might destabilize the product and lead to microbial growth.
Put simply, they’re there to keep the product fresh until you are ready to use it!