Cosmetic Ingredients 101

Cosmetic Ingredients 101

So, you have decided you want to launch your own cosmetic range.  Perhaps you cannot find the perfect product for yourself or perhaps you have noticed a gap in the market.

The cosmetic industry is an exciting one that is full of opportunities, however, it is also notoriously competitive so the key to success is really focusing on how your product or products are different and making sure they deliver on their promises.

A knowledge and understanding of what ingredients and actives go into cosmetics – be it skincare, personal care or hair care or make-up is so important.  It is also key to understand the difference between an ingredient and an active.

There are literally thousands of ingredients approved for use in the manufacture of cosmetic products, with most products containing between 15 and 50 ingredients.

While the formula of individual products will be different, all have a few basic ingredients: water, emulsifier, preservative, thickener, emollient, and fragrance.

Here we explain what these are what function the perform:


Most products, whether it be creams, lotions, makeup, deodorants, shampoos and conditioners contain at least some water.  Essentially water acts as a solvent to dissolve all other ingredients in and form emulsions for consistency. The water used in cosmetics needs to be free from microbes, toxins and other pollutants which is why distilled, or purified water is used.


An emulsifier refers to any ingredient that helps to keep unlike substances (such as oil and water) from separating. Many cosmetic products are based on emulsions – small droplets of oil dispersed in water or small droplets of water dispersed in oil. However, as oil and water don’t mix emulsifiers are added to change the surface tension between the water and the oil, producing a homogeneous and well-mixed product with an even texture. Emulsifiers used in cosmetics include polysorbates, laureth-4, and potassium cetyl sulfate. [Click here for available emulsifiers]


Preservatives often get a bad wrap but they are useful and extremely important especially when it comes to product safety. They are added to cosmetics to extend their shelf life and prevent the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. Preservatives used in cosmetics can be natural or synthetic (man-made) and perform differently depending on the formulation of the product. Some will require low levels of around 0.01%, while other will require levels as high as 5%.

Formulating without preservatives can considerably reduce the shelf life of products.

The most used preservatives include parabens, benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, formaldehyde [Click here for available preservatives]


Thickening agents help give products an appealing consistency, making them pleasant to use. There are a few different types of thickeners including lipid thickeners (cetyl alcohol, stearic acid and carnauba wax); naturally derived thickeners (hydroxyethyl cellulose, guar gum, xanthan gum and gelatin); mineral thickeners (magnesium aluminium silicate, silica and bentonite); and synthetic thickeners (carbomer, cetyl palmitate, and ammonium acryloyldimethyltaurate).


Emolllients are generally esters formed by mixed an alcohol with an acid.  They provide the spreading ability of your formulations and help reduce tack and increase gliding of the formulation.  e.g. isopropyl myristate, caprylic/capric triglyceride etc. [Click here for available emollients]


Smell has been proven to be one of the key factors in a consumer’s decision to purchase and/or use a product.

Chemicals, either natural or synthetic, are added to cosmetics to give them an appealing fragrance. Even ‘unscented’ products may contain masking fragrances to mask the smell of other chemicals.


Active ingredients are the ingredients contained within skincare products that address specific skin concerns, for example wrinkles, dehydration, radiance etc.

Actives generally have to have been tested and scientifically proven to actually have the desired effect, meaning the product will do what it says it will. They are very powerful ingredients and actives, combination of actives and their concentrations are what differentiate one product from another.

Common actives used include Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), Beta hydroxy acids, Ceramides, Hyaluronic acid (HA), Niacinamide, Peptides, Retinol, Vitamin C and Vitamin E. [Click here for available actives]


Sunscreens play an important role in protecting our skin from the harmful UVA and UVB rays emitted by the sun. Their use has been proven to help prevent certain skin cancers including melanomas and basal cell carcinomas and many products now include sunscreens in their formulations.  You get both chemical and natural sunscreens.  Common sunscreens include Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide, Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octocrylene. [Click here for available sunscreens]

The Personal Care Coach and Training Company has been created to help skincare entrepreneurs develop and launch their own skincare products.  Check out our free formulation guides, videos and articles.  Sign up for our newsletter to receive regular updates.