September 16, 2009

Cosmetic Ingredients 101

Are you a label reader? I am and I always have been. I want to know what's in the stuff I put into and onto my body. I prefer to go organic if given the choice, but I'm not gonna lie, I love the variety of fragrances, flavors and colors available in the market today. I believe in a good balance between nature and science to make Bidwell Botanicals products safe, effective and as natural as possible and still have desirable fragrance and eye appeal. I'd like to think that other manufacturers of bath and body products do the same.

So, how do you know what these things are that you see on the product labels? You could do your homework and research the web looking up chemical names and botanical information, but that's time consuming and tedious for most us, and all resources are not accurate. You could trust the information you get from the website you buy your products from, but let's face it, you typically get the information they want to project rather than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. To help you along your way I offer Cosmetic Ingredients 101. A continuing series of blog posts divulging the secrets of cosmetic and personal care ingredients including everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask, or you asked but you never got an answer that you understood.

Today we start with three very basic ingredient categories that are commonly used in the manufacturing of personal care products.
  • Water (Aqua): I know this is a no-brainer, but if you read the ingredient labels of water-based (hydrous) products you might see a lot of variation where water is concerned and it can be confusing. I've seen Distilled, Spring, Deionized and even Rain water listed as the first ingredient. Why so many different types? Water is not just water as it has minerals and chemicals depending on where it came from. We try to avoid using water with minerals or chemicals in it as it can create problems with other ingredients so we use steam distilled water and it is sterilized before inclusion in our formulas.

    Some products list herbal or fruit infusions complete with the herbs, fruits or what-have-you as their first ingredient. That's a bit misleading as the actual levels in these infusions rarely contain a significant amount of the botanical materials and they should be listed separately and probably further down on the list. That is not to say they don't add to the product efficacy, but you probably wouldn't want to use a facial toner, for example, that has a very high percentage of peppermint or citrus extract as it could prove irritating. Keep that in mind when you're perusing the myriad choices on the drug store shelf. If it's at the top of the list presumably there's more of it than what's at the bottom.

  • Sodium Hydroxide (aka Lye): This is a critical ingredient in soap making. It is not, however, present in its original form in the finished product, at least it shouldn't be. This is one of the reasons why many manufacturers don't list it on their ingredient disclosure. It is what makes oils and water into soap - period. At some point in the process of taking a variety of ingredients and combining them to make soap sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide will have to be included. This is true for all types of true soap, including most liquid soap products and melt and pour soaps (aka glycerin soap). Some syndet (synthetic detergent) bars can be made with surfactants and waxes but they are not considered a true soap by the legal definition. There are hybrids of soap and syndet out there but where there is soap there is, or at least was, lye.

    So if someone tries to tell you that they make soap without lye - well that's sort of a lie. They themselves might not be handling the lye but when the initial soap base was made it included lye or you'd have a puddle of oils and water in your soap dish. Any questions? No? Good. We'll move along then. (stepping off the proverbial soapbox)

  • Humectant: This is a broad category so we'll skim it today and delve deeper later. A humectant (pronounced hyoo-mek-tuh nt) is by definition: a substance that absorbs or helps another substance retain moisture. There are many varieties of humectants including natural and man-made sources such as honey, vegetable glycerin, lactic acid, propylene glycol and hyaluronic acid. All help to reduce transdermal water loss (TEWL) and attract and retain moisture.
All right students, that's all for today. Next time we'll examine some of the mysterious chemical names you can't decipher on the labels of your favorite beauty products. If you have any questions or suggestions regarding subject material please leave me some feedback. Class dismissed!

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