Artificial colors are everywhere in today’s world, and most consumers are familiar with their presence in food and household products. But did you know that these controversial colorants are also included in countless personal care, skin care, and cosmetic products? It’s true – artificial colors and dyes have extended their reach to the vast majority of commercial products, flying under the radar on many product labels. While artificial colors have a seemingly harmless history, they have been the subject of increasing debate in recent years as studies have uncovered potential issues with these colorful, yet unnecessary, ingredients. If you’re seeking greater transparency when it comes to what you put on your skin, struggle with sensitive skin or skincare concerns, or simply want to live a more natural life, keep reading! We’re about to take a deep dive into the world of artificial colors, and why they are harmful to your skin.
History of Artificial Colors
The first thing you need to know about artificial colorants is that they weren’t always artificial! In ancient times, many ancient cultures used naturally occurring colorants, such as brightly colored foods, plants, and spices, to dye household foods, cosmetics, and more. This continued for thousands of years and was common practice until 1856 when the very first artificial dye (mauve) was discovered by William Henry Perkin. This led to an explosion in the development of new dyes and colors…but unfortunately, many were produced using openly toxic ingredients like arsenic, lead, and mercury. In 1906, the U.S. Congress aimed to address this problem by passing the Food and Drugs Act, which prohibited the use of these poisonous ingredients. In 1927, the newly created Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took over the enforcement of the Food and Drug Act. Since then, the FDA has served as the regulatory agency for color additives in food, drug, and cosmetics products. Note: Under today’s law, personal care and skin care products fall into the category of cosmetics.
Today, color additives are the ONLY ingredient in cosmetic products that require pre-approval from the FDA before being sold (shocking, we know…but that is another blog post). However, just because these ingredients are legal, doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t harmful. As we’ll dig into in just a minute, there’s a growing body of research that suggests these ingredients may not be as harmless as we once thought.
But First…What Exactly Are Artificial Colors? How Can I Spot Them?
Artificial colors are synthetic compounds, typically made from chemically refined petroleum or coal by-products. If you’re familiar with how synthetic fragrances are created, and their ingredient lists, artificial colors are in many ways very similar. Most dyes contain twenty or more chemicals to achieve the desired shade, and no, these specific chemicals are not included in the ingredients list. This is the primary reason these dyes have become so controversial! We certainly wouldn’t want to lather up with so many unknown chemicals.
If you’re trying to identify artificial colors or dyes in an ingredient list, you’ll need to look closely and know what to look for. Often, colorants are listed at the very end of a lengthy ingredient list, and they might not be called out specifically. Look for terms like colorant, pigment, dye, or lake. Lake is a catch-all term used to describe aluminum-based colors and may be followed or preceded by a specific color, such as Green Lake. Additionally, any product that lists FD&C or D&C contains an added dye, as this labeling is required for FDA color additives.
You may find yourself asking, “but why?”. While there are several reasons colorants are added to a product, frankly, the primary use of dyes in skin care is as a marketing technique. Companies know that “pretty” products are more appealing to consumers, and having an eye-catching product increases the odds that they make a sale. Just picture the personal care aisle at your local store, and you’ll recognize the rainbow of products seeking to differentiate themselves. In general, dyes are the go-to ingredient for this differentiation because they are cheap to produce and have a long shelf life.
While visual appeal is the primary reason to include dyes, they may also be included to hide discoloration from aging, even out natural coloring from other ingredients, or differentiate between scents (i.e., ivory might represent a vanilla scent, while pink represents rose petals)
Are Artificial Colors Harmful?
After reading all that, you might be wondering if artificial colorants or dyes in your skincare products are safe. Because these ingredients can cause varying levels of harm depending on the chemicals used to create them, your specific skin type, and more, you’ll have to come to your own conclusion on their safety– but here are some facts to inform your decision.
First, artificial dyes can cause irritation, inflammation, and other unwanted skin problems due to their chemical content. Petroleum and coal by-products can be harsh, especially for those with sensitive or allergy-prone skin. To make matters worse, without transparent labeling and a list of each ingredient that makes up a specific dye, it can be hard to spot potential irritants before a product goes on your skin and causes problems. If you’ve struggled with skin irritation or other unexplained skin issues, consider simplifying your products and removing those with artificial colors (and fragrance!) to see if the issue resolves.
On the same note as skin irritation, artificial colorants can also irritate acne-prone skin. These extra ingredients can clog pores and change the natural balance of your skin’s microbiome, increasing the chance of a breakout.
On the more serious side of things, some dyes have been linked to severe illnesses and even cancer. Three dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, ad Yellow 6, have been found to be contaminated with known carcinogens. In the EU, many synthetic colors are banned due to health concerns or require a warning label stating potential adverse effects. Despite these concerning findings, all three of these dyes are still approved by the FDA for use in food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics, and no special labeling is required. These are just a few of the dyes and findings that have sparked the hotly-contested debate around artificial colors today.
A Better Way
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself if products containing artificial colors are right for you, and at what level of exposure. Fortunately, though, artificial colors are entirely unnecessary, and avoiding them won’t mean a less effective product! Plus, artificial ingredients aren’t the only option when it comes to creating a beautiful product – natural and botanical colorants are available and can create eye-catching and appealing products without the burden of potential toxins.
If you’re searching for effective products without chemical colorants, you might be interested in our goat milk soap, lotion, lip balms, and other products. At Madd House Hill, we are strictly chemical-free, using only the inherent color of our ingredients and natural botanicals to color our products. Our 100% natural philosophy is something we are extremely proud of and don’t plan to change! Many of our customers who have previously experienced skin sensitivity and irritation with commercial products have found great success when switching to our natural options.
Until Next Time,
Madd House Hill