Menu Join now Search

The Weird Gunk in Your Makeup—Cosmetic Ingredients

Although most ingredients are harmless, some substances in cosmetics do raise an eyebrow or two.

Shutterstock Image

Like formaldehyde, for example. Recently, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control found that even nail polishes that claimed to be free of the “toxic three”—formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene—contained the substances. (For the record, most major polish manufacturers have come out and said that surely their polishes were fine and they never lied. Ahem.)
But harmful carcinogens and unidentifiable chemicals aside, there’s still weird stuff lurking in cosmetics. Stuff that’s not necessarily toxic, but definitely strange. Stuff like this:
Crushed-Up Bugs
Carmine is a natural red dye. Natural equals good, right? Well good in the sense that’s been around for a long, long time, but bad in the sense that it’s made from crushed beetle shells. Yes, carmine (sometimes called crimson lake or cochineal) is derived from the crushed exoskeletons of tiny female beetles. Some people are mildly allergic to it, but if you’re trying to avoid it, don’t stop at cosmetics—avoid yogurt, juice, candy, and other dyed-red food products, which often contain it as well.
Hot Pepper Oil
A substance called capsicum (or sometimes capsaicin) is the secret ingredient in lip-plumping glosses that creates that puffy bee-stung look, as well as causes that strange tingling sensation. It tingles because capsicum is derived from hot peppers—the same stuff that gives pepper spray its kick. Since it’s derived from food it’s obviously non-toxic, but it’s definitely an irritant—the irritation is what makes it work. It’s found in many plumping glosses like DuWop Lip Venom and Sally Hansen Extreme Lip Inflation.
On the bottle of Calamine lotion, you might see it listed as “ferrous oxide,” but it’s basically rust. It’s what makes Calamine so deliciously pink, and if you ever see a cosmetics bottle that lists “pigment brown 6” or “pigment red 101” as ingredients, it’s in there, too.
Whale Vomit
Some things are just better the ol’ fashioned way, and when it comes to perfumes, that means that the preferred ingredient for affixing scent to the skin is ambergris, a musky compound that’s regurgitated by whales. (Sometimes it emerges from the whale at the other end.) The interesting thing about ambergris is that the pricier and fancier the perfume (especially expensive French eau de toilets), the more likely it is to contain this ancient, natural compound, while cheaper versions are more likely to have suspicious synthetic ingredients. Luckily, scientists have recently discovered that balsam fir sap is actually a better perfume fixative than ambergris, so the whales—and their pricy puke—are off the hook.
Sheep Wax
One of the cosmetics industry’s best-known and best-loved emollients, lanolin is a natural, organic substance that provides barrier protection to chapped skin, soothes dryness, and provides lasting moisture. That’s why it’s in everything, from basic body lotions to nipple creams to baby-butt balms. It’s also the most adorable skincare ingredient as it comes from sheep. Yes, waxy lanolin is secreted by sheep and waterproofs their coats. Once the sheep have been sheared, the lanolin is literally wrung out of the raw wool by mechanical rollers. Think about that the next time you see a tube of Lansinoh.
Egg Whites
If you’ve ever used a homemade face mask of egg white and lemon juice, you’ve used albumin in its natural concentration. Albumin is a protein found in egg whites and blood plasma, and when it’s applied to skin, it produces a feeling of tightening and constriction. That makes it a popular addition to wrinkle-fighters, even if the effects are only temporary. Most cosmetic-grade albumin is extracted from chicken eggs but some is derived from bovine or human blood, including the form of albumin found in Botox.

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.

More You'll Love

New Urban Decay Naked Cherry Collection Is Here, And We Have All The Juicy Details
The Best Fragrances For Women Who Are So Ready For Spring
Fenty Beauty's New Shimmery Release Is All About Double-Duty Beauty
Two Big Sephora Sales Are Happening Now—Shop Up To 60% Off!
New Urban Decay Naked Cherry Palette Is Coming, And Yes It's For Real
12 Beauty Gift Sets That Are On Our Wish List This Season
Get Lashes Like Meghan Markle With Her Go-To Lash Serum On Sale Now
This Macy’s Beauty Sale Is Massive, Here’s What’s In Our Cart
The OG Naked Palette Is Retiring—Get Yours Now For $27 Before It's Gone For Good