A Guide to Color Additives in Cosmetics

Color additives in cosmetics include dyes and pigments, this group of ingredients is the most tightly regulated group in the cosmetic industry today. They play an important role in making creams and shampoos seem more appealing, or for make-up in actually staining the skin. In my experience, there seems to be a bit of misinformation floating about on the internet regarding these ingredients. As a result, I’m writing this post to give you a brief breakdown of color additives, including must-know details about safety, usage and more. Enjoy!

A Historical Perspective

All the way back to ancient times, colored cosmetics were popular in many cultures. By 4000 BCE, for example, Egyptian women applied galena mesdemet (from copper and lead), malachite (from copper) and other naturally occurring colors (e.g. paprika) to their faces, often signifying their class. Moving through history, ingredients like henna dyes or rice powders have been seen in many cultures, for example, China, Japan, India and North Africa. By the 1500s, European women often lightened their skin with a variety of colored products, including white lead paint. Queen Elizabeth I of England was a well-known white lead user, which may have also been a product that led to her death. By the 1800s, zinc oxide began to replace some of the deadly lead and copper white mixtures that had killed many women in previous years. By 1856, William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye, mauve, and similar dye discoveries quickly followed. Due to the fact that these dyes were initially produced from byproducts of coal processing, they were labeled “coal-tar dyes”. By the 1900s, many artificially colored cosmetics became available and began to grow in popularity.


After a number of cases of consumers getting sick from their cosmetic products, the ingredients were assessed to find that many synthetic colors contained a variety of poisonous chemicals, for example, lead, arsenic, and mercury. The Food and Drug Act. in 1906 was passed to prohibit the use of these dangerous ingredients and offer more protection to consumers. By the 1920s and 30s, it became clear that the original Food and Drug Act of 1906 didn’t go far enough to protect consumers from their cosmetics. As a result, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 came about to offer more regulation specific to cosmetics. By the 1960s, new amendments came about to prohibit the use of color additives demonstrated to be a carcinogen.

Today, color additives are very tightly regulated due to the historical risks of these ingredients.There is currently a long list of color additives that aren’t allowed in cosmetic products. There are also restrictions for the area of use for color additives. For example, if a manufacturer wants to make a lipstick, they have to use only color additives that have been approved for use on lips. Finally, due to demonstrated risks of contamination with heavy metals, once naturally derived ingredients, for example, Iron Oxides, have to be now made in a lab to ensure consumer safety. As a result, aside from botanicals, which generally aren’t used in make-up due to their drawbacks (e.g. poor mixing and staining abilities plus possibilities of skin irritation or smell), store-bought “all-natural” makeup doesn’t really exist anymore.

For more 'light' reading on the subject of colored cosmetics through history, I really enjoyed this article on lipsticks through the 1900s.

Color Additives Today

Color additives used in cosmetics fall into either of the following two groups: organic or inorganic. The word organic here isn’t the marketing term we see in the grocery store. Instead, organic indicates that the chemical structure of the color additive includes carbon atoms. Organic color additives include synthetic dyes, lakes, and botanicals while the inorganic color additives include many mineral based colors, for example, iron oxide and zinc oxide. While many of the colors found in the inorganic group can be found in nature today, all of these color additives are synthetic and made in a lab to ensure consumer safety (e.g. nature identical). While the mineral mica is indeed natural, it is coupled in a lab with color additives, which can be either inorganic or organic, to give it a color. Thus, micas found in cosmetics are also not technically natural either. The only truly natural color additives in cosmetics used today include those of the botanical group, for example, turmeric, beetroot, spirulina, etc. Again, due to their poor effects on staining and mixing, and possible smell, these ingredients aren’t commonly found in make-up cosmetic products.

Top Need-to-Know’s

  1. The term “natural” on labels is currently unregulated. As a result, you can still see many make-up manufacturers who use Iron Oxides make claims that they’re 100% natural. Considering that these ingredients are actually synthetic, I personally think that this label is a wee bit dishonest for these types of products… And the Federal Trade Commision seems to agree. Last year in 2016, 5 companies falsely claiming “all-natural” while using these ingredients were charged, and it seems that these charges will affect more companies over the next few years.

  2. There is a large problem of slave labor within the mica mining industry, accounting for at least 80% of the Mica available today. As a result, many companies have opted to remove this ingredient type from their products until these issues are better understood and addressed. There are ethical sources of mica available - if you purchase this ingredient or buy a product from a manufacturer who uses mica, it would be worthwhile asking if they monitor their mica supply chain to ensure it’s not mined via slave labor.

  3. Color additives on cosmetic labels may also include a Color Index (CI) number, the European Union method of identification. This applies to all color additives.

The information presented in this blog post only is brushing the surface. There is so much chemistry, legislation and biology to grasp to really understand the complexity of color additives. If you’re a formulator or a DIY Beauty enthusiast, we suggest that, if you chose to use color additives in your cosmetic products, especially for makeup related products, refer to the available Health Canada or the FDA resources to make sure that the color additives you're using are safe and legal for where you’re going to apply it and in what concentration. I personally find diagrams to be one of the easiest ways for me to see the bigger picture so I put together the following diagram to cover some of the information covered above and some of the things we didn’t get to. I know there’s a lot going on, but if you read through each of the bubbles, you’ll hopefully come to a better understanding of the world of color additives in cosmetics.



Thanks for reading! As always, if you have any comments, queries, or conundrums about the content above, leave a comment or shoot us an email!


Borowska S and Brzoska M. (2015) Metals in cosmetics: implications for human health. J appl toxicol. 35(6):551-72.

Kim K et al. (2016) The use of personal hair dye and its implications for human health. Environ Int. 89-90:222-7.

Kumar A and Madan A. (2014) Color additives: legislative perspective in the United States, Europe, Australia, and India. Int j pharm compd. 19(4):293-300.

Lores M et al. (2016) Positive lists of cosmetic ingredients: analytical methodology for regulatory and safety controls - a review. Anal chim acta. 7(915):1-26.

Loretz L et al. (2005) Exposure data for cosmetic products: lipstick, body lotion, and face cream. Food chem toxicol. 43(2):279-291

Nanthini U et al. (2016)  Natural pigments in cosmetics - past to present. Int journ pharm scie and busin man. 4(6):7-14.