Pigments, Dyes, Lakes & Micas: What Is In Your Makeup?  

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.

Image by Martí Sans / Stocksy

If you're a mindbodygreen reader, you're likely pretty well versed in your ingredient labels: You know to avoid the big ones like phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde, and the like. You're likely well educated on all the ingredient issues in SPF. Perhaps you've become adept at decoding all the various names of silicones in hair care, too!

But coloring agents that go into color cosmetics? I find that tends to be a bit more complicated. So to help you decode those, I enlisted Yashi Shrestha, the research scientist and cosmetic chemist behind clean beauty retailer NakedPoppy.

So what do I need to know about colorants?

Actually, Shrestha tells me, colorants are regulated: The regulations in the United States actually exceed those in the E.U., which is not the case for anything else in personal care regulations. This isn't to say that makeup is well-regulated, only the colorants that go in them; you still need to be mindful of the rest of the ingredient label.

That's also not to say there aren't color-specific things to look out for on your ingredient label. One of the more important things to note? Buy products from companies that regularly test their ingredients for impurities like heavy metals. "Heavy metals are ubiquitous in nature; there is risk of these contaminants to carry over when formulating with them," she says. "Therefore, it is important to test to ensure the levels are not exceeding safety levels." (If you don't want to go through the effort of figuring this out, clean retailers like Credo, Clean at Sephora, and NakedPoppy do a pretty good job of vetting them.)

For this reason, Shreshta goes on to say, "Colorants are a great example of something that just because a chemical is natural does not mean it is 'safe,' and just because it is synthetic does not mean it is 'unsafe.'" This is why mostly natural brands will default to safe synthetic with their makeup options (red lipstick is a great example of this: The only way to get that poppy red is to use synthetic colorants or carmine, which is natural but not vegan.)

And for those who use natural pigment only? It might take a little more work on the companies' part: "While many companies may have opted to use natural-derived colorants, the biggest challenge is ensuring consistency and stability, especially as naturally occurring chemicals may not be able to resist heat, UV, or manufacturing processes to maintain the desired effect," she says.

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So, what are all these names on the ingredient label?

These colorants can be derived from nature from plants, animals, bugs, minerals, or can be made synthetically in the laboratory. 

  • Coal tar: This is a big one to avoid, as it's been linked to carcinogenicity. "While several coal-tar-derived colorants have been prohibited for use over the years, coal-tar-derived colorants are widely used in the industry still," says Shreshta. "The ingredient lists don't often reveal enough information to know the exact source of the colorants." Best to just avoid.
  • Dye: This is a chemical that is water-soluble and will impart color when dissolved; they can be used in both powder or liquid form. "Dyes can be used for water-based products that do not have oils in the formula; however, they are not preferred as they may bleed, transfer, or migrate within the product," she says.
  • Pigment: This is a chemical that is insoluble in water, oils, and resins and imparts color by dispersion. "They need to be suspended in a dispersing agent or a 'vehicle' to color the product," she says. "They often come from a mineral origin."
  • Lakes: This is a type of pigment that is most often used in the cosmetics industry because they are dispersible in oil-based formulas and, therefore, compatible with a lot of products. They also tend to be more stable. "These are a type of pigment often made by combining soluble dyes with a mordant, which is usually a metallic salt," she says.
  • Mica: This is likely what you see when you get shimmery, glitter-like products. "It is a naturally occurring mineral that has reflective properties," she says. However, be careful with micas, and make sure you are buying the product from an ethical source, as micas are often mined with unethical conditions.

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