Natural Vs. Synthetic Color in Cosmetics

There is one reason we love cosmetics. It enhances our natural features through the use of color. Some people treat makeup like an art where all the various cosmetics are the paints that highlight, correct, hide or enhance. This natural human desire to beautify ourselves goes back 6,000 years and affects nearly all societies.
But what gives cosmetics its brilliant array of colors? More often than not, it's through the use of FD&C color pigments, which are the only pigments approved for use in cosmetics. Without FD&C color pigments we wouldn't have much left to colorize our cosmetics.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the governing body that regulates the specifications and use of cosmetic colors.

There are two main categories of FDA permitted color additives:
1. Man-made colors (derived primarily from petroleum and coal sources) are sometimes called "certifiable" color additives, meaning that the additive has been tested by the FDA and can be used legally in FDA-regulated products.
These colors come with the prefix FD&C, D&C, or Ext. D&C. When you see "FD&C, a color, a number" (ex., FD&C Yellow 5) know that the FD&C stands for Food, Drug, and Cosmetics. These are organic compounds that can be used in food, drugs, and cosmetics (D&C means they can be used in drugs and cosmetics, but not food). These pigments are typically intense; therefore, only minute concentrations need to be used to color a product. They are considered to be safe for consumption. As with anything, there will be the rare case where someone is allergic to an ingredient.
All FD&C colors are dyes, meaning they are a liquid that has color. Pigments, however, are solids that have color. When a solid color is made from a dye, it is called a "lake," such as in "Red 34 Lake."
2. The second category of colors is those derived from animal/insect, plant, or mineral sources. They are exempt from FDA certification. However, they are still additives and need to comply with FDA's regulatory and safety requirements and standards.
This is where things can get a little messy. Some people, quick to eschew all FD&C additives as bad, simply for being synthetic as opposed to natural, would opt to ban all FD&C additives in favor of the second category of colors derived from animal/insect, plant, or mineral sources. Not only is this tricky politically because if the color is derived from an animal it means the product is no longer acceptable to vegetarians or vegans and the product will likely no longer meet kosher or halal dietary laws, but chemically speaking, calling these additives "natural" does not give us the whole picture of the process. For example, in the case of carmine, a color derived from the crushed bodies of cochineal bugs, the process is not as simple as gathering up a bucketful of bugs and stomping on them to extract their juice (we apologize to any vegan readers!) and call it complete. The source material of many so-called natural color additives may indeed be natural, but there is usually a synthetic process used for extraction, processing, etc. So at what point does it stop being natural?
Fortunately, the only animal/insect derived colorant we are aware of is carmine. The bad news for the squeamish and vegans is that carmine is quite common. Thanks to its red dye, the cochineal bug has a long history of being recruited by humans to dye everything from fabrics, food and alcohol, and cosmetics. It is water-dispersible and can even be more stable than some synthetic colorants. It is used to produce a range of colors from light oranges and pinks to deep crimson. It can be listed as Carmine, Cochineal extract (Carminic acid), or Natural Red 4. (Interesting to note that people commonly refer to cochineal as a beetle, but they are not beetles, they are a scale insect.) Some naturalists even say they're good for you.
So what's wrong with FD&C colors (i.e., artificial colorants)? According to some consumer advocate groups, FD&C colors are suspected to cause:
- neurological issues (hyperactivity, difficulty with attention) and possibly ADD or ADHD
- rashes
- asthma
- tumors and cancer (carcinogenic)
Of course, consuming these additives is a bit different from topical application (especially application to nails which have such good barrier properties); furthermore, these additives are usually found in packaged food containing sugar and other nutritionally deficient ingredients which you should limit your consumption of anyway. However, other than a few studies done on rats, there is no conclusive evidence that FD&C colors are harmful.
For color additives to work in natural water-based cosmetics they need to be insoluble in water to avoid staining. In order to achieve this, manufactures use the colorant in its "laked" form wherein the dye is physically embedded onto the substrate, e.g. calcium and aluminum, rendering it insoluble. Water-based formulations are more restricted in which of the approved colorants can be used because many of the approved colorants which are soluble in water will stain.
To our knowledge, laked pigments have never caused an allergic reaction simply because the dye has been rendered inaccessible by the laking process.

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