Product Vocabulary – What is an Active Ingredient?

Welcome to today’s product vocabulary breakdown! I want to review one very common mistake that I see out in the beauty world, one that I am guilty of but would like to start using the proper terminology for. Active Ingredients. When most beauty people talk about active ingredients they’re commonly referring to performance ingredients. So let’s briefly review ingredient categories so we can be all smart and savy when talking about our favorite products.

Active Ingredients

An active ingredient (in the US that is) is one that can be found on a drug panel, one that follows a drug monograph and is listed separately from other ingredients in cosmetic & personal care products. Examples include – Aluminum Chlorohydrate, Salicylic Acid, Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide, Dimethicone (yeah I’ll explain this in a min), Menthol, Oxybenzone, and Ethyl Alcohol. These ingredients (also called OTC ingredients) have been highly studied and been proven to be effective at the approved %’s, allowing brands to make approved claims. This is why after the active % listing, you’ll see the function of that ingredient. Ingredients that are classified as active ingredients can also be performance and functional ingredients depending on their concentration. For example dimethicone is highly used in many hair and skin care products – but when used in 1% in certain formulations may be sold as a skin protectant product. A company has to ensure that their formula aligns with the drug monograph to make claims that the ingredient at an approved level has been show to do. So automatically including an ingredient I listed above doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an “active” ingredient. If you’re interested here is a link for the FDA’s current list of active ingredients and their approved purposes.

Performance Ingredients

Now here’s the star ingredients that the beauty world loves so much. Performance ingredients are those that have functions and can make a difference but have not been studied or regulated to the extent of active/drug ingredients. Examples include – Vitamin A,B,C,D,E,K, antioxidants, niacinamide, biotin, plant extracts (some not all), hyaluronic acid, kaolin and caffeine. Performance ingredients are added for a purpose but can also be added in small amounts for a label claim. Some ingredients like caffeine, biotin and hyaluronic acid work best in small concentrations so don’t be worried when you see it near the bottom of an ingredient list.

Functional Ingredients

These are the bases and supporting ingredients of our cosmetic & personal care products. Without functional ingredients there’d be no base, nothing to hold together our precious active and performance ingredients. Functional ingredients examples include water, oils, waxes, glycerin, fatty acids, fatty alcohols, and preservatives. When it comes to adding fragrance, flavors and colorants, functional ingredients are the ones stabilizing these in the formula, ensuring that they don’t fall out of solution or go rancid. Functional ingredients aren’t the most glamorous but we literally wouldn’t have products without them.

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