The “additives” category is actually a pretty big umbrella of different ingredients. Anything not considered an active ingredient is an additive. In shampoo, the surfactants and conditioning agents that clean and moisturize your hair are the active ingredients. Any ingredient that doesn’t perform that specific function is considered an additive. Additives have various functions; they provide the products with their long-term physical stability and consistency, preserve the formula and keep it from molding or spoiling, and give the product a desired colour or fragrance. They aren’t required for the product to function as it should, but often provide additional benefits.
Believe it or not, one of the most common additives in cosmetics is plain old water. If it’s presence is not directly related to the main function of the product, it’s considered an additive. A common example would be an emulsion of oil & water. It’s also used to make a formula easy to spread, and to bulk up a recipe for a low cost.
“Preservatives” is a pretty big category on its own, and we’ll be dedicating an entire blog post to it later on. For now, let's stick to the basics. Anything that has any amount of water in it is susceptible to growing microorganisms, like bacteria, fungi, yeast, or mold. This includes our shampoos, lotions, and various other goops. Hence, products containing water generally will be preserved, in order to give them a longer shelf life. Paraben derivatives are the most common preservatives found in cosmetics, though there are plenty of more natural alternatives. Geogard and sorbic acid are two such preservatives found in our bars, and you can find more information on them in next week’s post, “Why the Ingredients Matter Part 4: Preservatives!
As most of us know, water and oil don’t exactly mix well. But when oil and water are often two key ingredients in cosmetics in one form or another. In order to blend the two, and to keep them from separating in the finished product, an emulsifier is added. The resulting mixture is called an emulsion, which is just a fancy word for a stable mixture of oil and water. Emulsifiers are just one type of additive used to control the consistency of a formula. Others might include thickening agents, foam stabilizers, and fluids that make the formula more spreadable.
Additives are also used to make a product more pleasing to the senses. The pearlescent shine seen in many liquid shampoos comes from the wax glycol distearate, tiny flakes that mix well with surfactants. A company might add dyes or pigments to a formula to camouflage the less-than-pretty colour of the original formula.
In our own shampoo bars, we use synthetic mica to give the bars a fun pop of colour. Micas are a group of naturally occurring minerals traditionally used as pigment. At Upfront Cosmetics, we prefer to use synthetic mica for a few reasons. For one thing, synthetic mica produces a more vivid colour and shine than naturally-mined mica. More importantly, some natural micas are toxic, and the particles are sharper, meaning you can get microscopic cuts on your skin. Worst of all, the mining of mica has been tied to slavery, child labour, and human rights violations in India.
Fragrances are considered additives as well. Whether they be synthetic fragrance, hidden under the non-descript catch-all Parfum, or come from all-natural essential oils, the lovely smell of your products is a secondary characteristic and therefore is considered an additive.
Our skin and hair have a natural pH of 4.5, and the closer your shampoo is to that pH, the better. Most shampoos are made to be slightly acidic, meaning the pH is lower, which is exactly what your skin wants. Ingredients like citric acid are added to acidify the shampoo.
Vitamins might also be added to the formula, like vitamin E, which actually doubles as an antioxidant, or vitamin B5 (found in shampoo as panthenol), used to hydrate and condition hair.
The funny thing about additives is, there’s no clear line to draw between additives and active agents. It’s very common for a shampoo ingredient to have several different functions in a formula.
For example, we use cocamidopropyl betaine (aka CocoB) for several of its special properties. As an amphoteric surfactant, it carries a positive charge at the low pH of shampoo, making it act as a cationic surfactant. This gives it mild cleansing properties, as well as conditioning ability and anti-static properties. Adding it to the mixture means you don’t have to add as many harsher surfactants. It’s thickness means it can be helpful in thickening the mixture, and as a humectant, it draws moisture from the air. It even has antibiotic properties that help keep the shampoo from spoiling.
As the second ingredient in our bars, we can definitely say that CocoB is one of the active ingredients. But with all these other useful benefits, it could be used in other formulas as an additive.
We might be conditioned to think negatively about words like “additives” and “preservatives”. We think that the less ingredients in a product, the better. But really, the word “additives” is a large umbrella term, and it’s only real definition in the context of cosmetics is any ingredient that is not necessary for the product to work as intended. They can provide many extra benefits to a shampoo formula. Certainly, it’s important to look at the ingredients list with care, but additives in general aren’t something to be worried about!