Synthetic colourants

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

A not so inncocent beginning 

Colourants have been used in make-up and cosmetics for centuries. 

A very popular cosmetics product in the middle ages was the so-called Venetian ceruse, a skin whitener made of lead. Little was it known at the time that lead is actually a poisonous heavy metal! It was extensively used by the aristocracy in Europe as a face whitener and later on as a colourant for wigs and even eyeliner.  

Queen Elisabeth I is famous for being an avid user of this poisonous make-up concoction. It is believed that her daily application of the lead-based make-up as well as her mercury-containing lip stain and make-up remover may have led to her death. 

Synthetic colourants and why we do not use them

There are various types of synthetic colourants, the most commonly used in cosmetics being the

  • FD&C (ie., Food Drug & Cosmetics) synthetic dyes
  • Synthetic Lakes (produced from FD&C dyes)
  • mineral colourants such as iron oxides, ultramarines, micas, titanium and zinc oxide 

#1 Sustainability 

Photo by Bart van Dijk on Unsplash

The first synthetic dyes were made from by-products of coal tar, with the very first one, "mauve", accidentally discovered by William Perkin in 1856. 

However many were still contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury. 

Nowadays most synthetic colourants are made from chemically refined petroleum oil. Their origin in non-renewable resources constitutes them non-sustainable as well as poorly biodegradable.

    #2 Health hazards 

    The health and safety regulations regarding synthetic dyes and lakes are complex and vary from country to country.

    For instance the dye “Green 3” is approved for use by the FDA in the US while banned in the EU 1. Others are banned in the US but allowed in the EU 2

    Synthetic colourants have long been suspected of being linked to various allergies, skin irritation and sensitivity, neurological, reproductive and developmental disorders and even carcinogenicity 3,4.

    Many synthetic dyes have even been found to have an effect on childrens’ behaviour causing hyperactivity, inattentiveness and restlessness while possibly negatively impacting memory and learning ability 5,6.

    This is why many companies are moving away from synthetic dyes, even if they are approved for use, and are looking for safer alternatives.

    The brightness and intensity of the synthetic dyes cannot be surpassed by their botanical counterparts. Still, we believe that beautiful (even if slightly more muted) colours can be achieved by botanical powders. Most importantly, we do not feel that achieving a perfect non-fading bright blue is worth risking our health over. 

    #3 Lab-made mineral pigments

    Mineral compounds are considered to be a healthier alternative to synthetic dyes and lakes. They include micas and iron oxides.

    Iron oxides are available in shades of brown, black, yellow and red and the different colours arise from the different oxidation states of iron. They were initially naturally mined but it was then found that they contained dangerous levels of heavy metals.

    The iron oxides used in cosmetics are therefore nowadays entirely synthetically made to avoid contamination with poisonous metals and strict regulations are in place to control the amount of trace heavy metals they contain 7,8.

    There are therefore no “natural” iron oxides, only “nature identical” ones, meaning that they are lab-made to mimic the ones found in nature. 

    Other common white colourants are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, used to colour soaps and cosmetics white or as UV blockers in sunscreens. While they are deemed as safe and non-irritants, they are still lab-made. Despite being lab-made, mineral sunscreens containing one of these two active ingredients to protect our skin from UV radiation are much safer than the "chemical" sunscreens containing substances such as oxybenzone or avobenzone. 

    #4 Micas and child-labour

    Micas are one of the few natural colourants that can still be mined and are also synthetically made. Mica is a naturally occurring mineral, but what most people do not know is that it is actually off-white (or sometimes slightly brownish) in its natural state. To achieve the array of different bright coloured micas we find on the market, synthetic dyes and pigments are applied to the natural off-white mica. The final coloured mica is therefore no longer natural.  

    The most disturbing fact about micas however is that most of commercially available naturally mined mica is extracted using illegal child labour with children as young as 5-6 years old working in extremely harsh and often deadly conditions.

    In the so-called mica belts in Jharkhand and Bihar, India up to 80% of mined mica is reported to originate from these unofficial, child-labour mines 9. There has been an effort to crack down on the slavery in the mica industry and there are indeed suppliers claiming to provide ethically sourced mica. 

    Nevertheless, even if all mica sold was ethically sourced, we would still not use it in our products as it is almost always treated with synthetic dyes. 

    #5 Carmine...a natural colourant that "bugs" us

    Carmine is a bright red colourant very commonly found in red lipstick.

    Even though it is natural, it is made by grinding up the cactus-eating cochineal insects. The cochineal beetles are composed of 20% carminic acid, which is what makes carmine red.

    You will find carmine and other cochineal derivatives listed in cosmetics as carmine, crimson lake, cochineal extract, natural red 4 or CI 75470 10

    Our verdict 

    We stay away from synthetic dyes, lakes, synthetic mineral pigments, micas and non-vegan colourants. We only use natural botanical colourants in our formulations. 

    Straight from nature and biodegradable. 

    Photo by Nia Ramirez on Unsplash

    Botanical colourants are the ones derived straight from plants or fruits without having undergone any chemical modification.

    You will find for instance chamomile powder in our Piece of Cake soap and Lemon Myrtle Shampoo, which gives them a muted yellow tone, cranberry fruit powder in our Cranberry Spice Sugar Scrub for a lovely bright red/pink colour and cocoa powder in our Morning Coffee soap.

    References

    Sari Lehto, Maria Buchweitz, Alexandra Klimm, Raphaela Straßburger, Cato Bechtold & Franz Ulberth (2017) Comparison of food colour regulations in the EU and the US: a review of current provisions, Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 34:3, 335-355, DOI: 10.1080/19440049.2016.1274431

    Mapping food colour regulations in the EU and the US, EU Science Hub

    3 R.D. Combes, R.B. Haveland-Smith,
    A review of the genotoxicity of food, drug and cosmetic colours and other azo, triphenylmethane and xanthene dyes,
    Mutation Research/Reviews in Genetic Toxicology,
    Volume 98, Issue 2,1982,Pages 101-243, ISSN 0165-1110

    4 Kobylewski, Sarah, and Michael F Jacobson. “Toxicology of food dyes.” International journal of occupational and environmental health vol. 18,3 (2012): 220-46. doi:10.1179/1077352512Z.00000000034

    5 Food dyes linked to attention and activity problems in children, Envoronmental Health News

    Synthetic Food Dye Risk Assessment, California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

    Comparatively Speaking: Natural- vs. Mineral-based ColorantsAnthony J. O'Lenick Jr., Siltech LLC, 2011, Cosmetics & Toiletries

    8 Iron oxides, Cosmetics Info 

    Fighting for Survival in India's Deadly Mines, Spiegel International, A Visual Story By Marius Münstermann und Christian Werner

    10 Makeup Enthusiasts: Stop Smearing Dead Bugs on Your Face, Peta