In this cosmetic glossary, you will find explanations for ingredients’ functions, chemical terms, and different labels you might find on products.

Leave a comment if you are looking for a definition of a word not yet included, and we’ll add it!





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An abrasive cosmetic ingredient helps removing material from body surfaces, working as a scrub. They can also aid mechanical teeth cleaning or generally improve shine. Silica is one example of an abrasive ingredient.


An absorbent ingredient takes up water, oil-soluble or finely dispersed substances. Oil-absorbing substances are reportedly found in different kind of acne/oil-control products.

Anti-caking agent

These ingredients prevent powdered cosmetics turning into lumps and hard masses. Talc is commonly used as a anti-caking agent.


Anti-corrosives are used to avoid corrosion of packaging. One substance with this function is sodium nitrite.


These substances, for example coal tar or selenium sulfide, are used in cosmetics to help control dandruff.


As it sounds – decreases the tendency of the cosmetic to create foam.


Anti-microbial ingredients help control the growth of micro-organisms on the skin. Two examples that our Ingredient Scanner highlight are farnesol and grapefruit seed extract.


To prevent that product oxidate and turns rancid, anti-oxidative ingredients are added as they prevent reactions promoted by oxygen. There are many anti-oxidative agents, ex butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), toluol and thioglycolic acid.


Reduces sweat, or more nicely put – reduces perspiration. Two examples of ingredients with antiperspirant properties are farnesol and aluminium.


Ingredients that are anti-plaque simply work against plaque (bacteria on teeth).


Seborrhea = over activity of the sebaceous glands. Anti-seborrheic ingredients help control the production of sebum (the oily substance on our skin and scalp). Example selenium sulfide and salicylic acid.


Antiseptic ingredients curb the development and growth of microorganisms on the skin and tissue that for example can cause infections. See thiomersal, among others.


These are substances that are neutralizing the electrical charge on a surface to decrease the static electricity. If you are looking to get the opposite effect – try rubbing a balloon against your hair. Quaternium-15 and acrylates are two examples of antistatic agents.


Astringent ingredients affect the skin by contracting tissue, in cosmetics this could for example mean contracting pores.



Pretty straightforward, binding ingredients creates cohesion in products. In other words, they bind the ingredients together.


Ingredients that work as disinfectants and pest control in product formulations. See examples hydrogen peroxide2-Phenylphenol and triclocarban.


Substances and compounds that makes hair or skin lighter by bleaching it. Ingredients include hydrogen peroxideoctoxynol and 1-Naphthol.


Buffering ingredients, such ammonia and boric acid, are used to stabilize the Ph in cosmetic products.



As it sounds – ingredients that help to clean body and hair. Includes substances such as sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), dimethylaminopropylamine and chloroform.

CMR substance

A substance that is classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction (CRM). Progesterone, safrole and trixylyl phosphate are some of the substances that are classified as CMR.


Conditioning does not necessarily mean that the ingredient is long-term moisturizing or nourishing. The conditioning effect could be temporary.

Skin conditioning ingredients  – basically used to keep the skin in good condition. These ingredients that are used to refatten, soften and smooth the skin.

Hair conditioning ingredients – pretty self-explanatory; conditions the hair to improve softness, volume, shine, to make it easier to comb, etc.

Conditioning agents include grapefruit seed extract, mineral oil and tocopheryl acetate (tocopherol).

Cosmetic colorant

Substances that color skin, hair, or the actual product formulation.



Substances that removes grease, for example 1-Bromopropane.


Ingredients added to make cosmetics containing alcohols, for example ethyl alcohol, unpalatable. The denaturants can render the cosmetic bad tasting, nauseating or even poisonous. And this is done to “discourage recreational consumption” of products, as Wikipedia nicely puts it. Methanol and boric acid can be used as a denaturants in cosmetics.


Needs little explanation, but as clarified by the European Commission; Deodorants “Reduces or masks unpleasant body odors.”

Note – this is not only including deodorants, other cosmetic can also contain deodorising substances that reduces smell.


Chemical ingredients, such as calcium hydroxide and polyethylene glycols (PEGs), that help with removing body hair.

Dermatitis and contact dermatitis

Dermatitis is a general term used when describing any inflammation to the skin, for example redness, swelling or blisters. When an inflammatory skin reaction occurs due to harmful agents in the environment, it is called contact dermatitis.


This skin has three primary layers; epidermis is the outer layer, then comes the dermis and the layer furthest in is called hypodermis.

Dermis contains for example collagen, elastic fibers, hair follicles, sweat glands and blood vessels.


Helps combing hair. Detangling substances decreases or take away hair intertwining that could be caused by damage.



Ecological is a term used to describe that the product has been produced with care for nature. It is not a defined description, but ecological farming basically means sustainable farming; that a harmonious long-term relationship between the production and the environment is kept.

Note – the term generally has no legal binding and might be used for greenwashing.


Ingredients that are used to refatten, soften and smooth the skin, similar to conditioners. And also similar to conditioners, they are not necessarily promising long term nourishment of the skin, the effects could be temporary.  Includes for example mineral oils and petrolatum.

Emulsifying and emulsion stabilising

An emulsifying ingredient help mix non-miscible liquids, like oil and water. Lecithin can function emulsifying.

Emulsion stabilizing ingredients generally helps with the process of the emulsification. I can also improve the stability of the emulsion and the shelf-life of the products.


This skin has three primary layers; the epidermis is the outer layer, then comes the dermis and the layer furthest in are called hypodermis.

Epidermis serves as a barrier to protect against infections and regulates water release from the body.


Ethoxylation is a chemical reaction; ethylene oxide is added to product formulations to make certain ingredients less harsh. Ethoxylated ingredients include for example octoxynols and ammonium laureth sulfate.


Film forming

Basically what it sounds like; these ingredients help the cosmetic form a film on skin, hair, or nails.

Flavoring agent

Flavoring agents are additives that are used in foods and medicines to improve taste. They exist in hundreds of variants,  from fruit to seafood flavours, and can be both natural and synthetic.

Flavoring agents can also be found in cosmetics but with other functions, for example cinnamal, citronellol and isoeugenol.

Foaming and foam boosting

Foam is created when adjusting the surface tension of a liquid to trap lots of small bubbles of air or gas within a small volume of liquid.

Foam boosting substances improves the quality of the foam by for example improving texture, volume or stability. One common ingredient is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).


Chemicals that kill fungi and spores in products.


Gel forming

Gelling agents turns liquids to the consistency of a gel.


Semisolid lubricants. For example lanolin.    


Greenwashing is a form of marketing where products are promoted as “greener” or more environmental friendly than what they actually are.


Hair dying

Colors any body hair.

Hair fixing

Permits for, as the European Commission nicely writes, “physical control of hairstyle”.

Hair waving or straightening

Substances that chemically alters the structure of hair; straight hair can become curly, and curly hair can become straight. For example thioglycolic acid and lithium hydroxide.


Keeps and holds moisture. These substances help body or hair to absorb the moisture of cosmetics.


Hydrogen gas is added under high pressure to liquid oils to turn them into semisolid fats or solid fats in room temperature.

Partially hydrogenation in foods, commonly vegetable oils turned into margarine (semi solid), contain trans fat, fully hydrogenated solid fats are saturated and does not contain trans fat. Hydrogenated oils/fats are used because they last longer and are cheaper.


Ingredients that can absorb or adsorb water from the surrounding area.


Used to help substances that are only slightly soluble in water – hydrotropes enhances the solubility.


This skin has three primary layers; epidermis is the outer layer, then comes the dermis and the layer furthest in is called hypodermis.

The hypodermis, the lowermost layer, is primarily used for fat storage.


In silico / In vitro / In vivo

In silico, in vitro, and in vivo are the three broad ways of how experiments are done in studies. All three ways of doing experiments are used when formulating new cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

In silico – Experimentation performed on a computer or through computer simulation.

In vitro – Experiments done outside of a living organism.

In vivo – Experimentation using a living organism. This includes both animals testing and clinical trials human volunteers (can be paid as well). In the EU it is forbidden to test cosmetics on animals.


A substance that gives a visual sign, commonly by changing color.



Keratolytic are substances that help remove dead cells from the outermost layer of epidermis.



Lubricants are used to decrease friction between surfaces. Includes ingredients such as 1-Bromopropane and trixylyl phosphate.



Masking ingredients decreases or inhibits the basic odor of a cosmetic. Three examples are ammonia,  citronellol and geraniol.


What most already know – a moisturizing ingredient helps keeping the skin soft and smooth. It does so by increasing the water content of the skin.



A vague term for ingredients sourced from something created by nature, unlike something made or altered by humans.

However, like ecological, there is no legal definition of what natural is or how many natural ingredients a product needs to contain to be labeled “natural”.



Substances that lower the transparency or translucency of products. See for example titanium dioxide or talc.

Oral care

Ingredients in cosmetics that cleans, deodorises and protects the oral cavity, meaning the mouth, throat, tongue, teeth, etc.


These are the differences of ecological, organic and natural. Organic is the only term which has legal standards to live up.

Ecological – this is a term used to describe that the product has been produced with care for nature. It is not a defined description, but ecological farming basically means sustainable farming, that a harmonious long-term relationship between the production and the environment is kept.

The term generally has no legal binding and might be used for greenwashing.

Organic – A much stricter term than “ecological” and “natural”. Organic products have to meet certain legally defined criteria.

Special requirements are set up and controls are made to ensure that the farming really is organic from where the ingredients are sourced.

Natural – A vague term for ingredients sourced from something created by nature, unlike something made or altered by humans.

However, like ecological, there is no legal definition of what is natural.


An oxidizing ingredient adds oxygen or removes hydrogen to change the chemical properties of another substance. Hydroquinone and resorcinol functions oxidizing.



Substances that create a nacreous, pearl like, appearance in cosmetics.


Plasticizers are used to make substances, that otherwise would not be easily spread or softened, more soft and smooth.


Preservatives are very common to find in cosmetics as they hinder the development of micro-organisms in the products. Three common preservatives are triclosan, bronopol and formaldehyde.



The reducing substances, similar to the oxidizing substances, removes oxygen or adds hydrogen to change the chemical properties of other substances. Thioglycolic acid can work reducing.


This one, as it sounds, refills fat (lipids) either to the hair or the top layers of the skin.


These are substances that can add a feeling of freshness to the skin.


Residual ingredients are “leftovers”, most commonly from the manufacturing process. One common example from manufacture is ethylene oxide.

Another example is tetrachloroethylene (perc) which is a chemical used in dry cleaning that might leave high levels of residuals on the fabrics.


Skin protecting

Ingredients that are supposed to protect the skin from external factors and harmful effects.

Slip modifier

Chemical slip modifiers in cosmetics help ingredients penetrate and spread over the skin. Talc powder can function as a slip modifier.


Smooths the skin from irregularities and roughness; these substances seeks to get an even skin surface. See for example the ingredient Lecithin or the highly fluorinated substances.

Solubilising agent

An ingredient that makes the product formulation more soluble (loose).


Soothing ingredients are supposed to lighten discomfort of the scalp or the skin.


These substances increase the overall stability of a cosmetic by improving ingredients, formulation and/or shelf life.


A surface active agent is a substance which lowers the surface tension of the medium (the product formulation) in which it is dissolved.

It also helps with an even distribution of the cosmetic. Includes chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS),   octoxynols or dimethylaminopropylamine.



A tanning chemical changes the skin to a darker tone without exposure to sunlight/UV.


Tonics are used to create a feeling of well-being, either on hair or skin.


UV absorber

These chemicals protect the product, skin or hair by absorbing UV light.

UV filter

A UV filter does what it sounds like – filters UV rays either by absorbing or reflecting. They are added to cosmetics to protect the product, hair or skin from the harmful effects of UV rays.

UV reflector

UV reflector chemicals scatter the incoming UV light in different directions.


Viscosity and viscosity controlling

A fluid with low viscosity is said to be “thin,” while a high viscosity fluid is “thick.” It is easier to move through a low viscosity fluid (like water) than a high viscosity fluid (like honey).

A viscosity controlling substance works by either increase or decrease the viscosity.