Safe Handling of Cosmetic Ingredients

Making cosmetics at home has become a quite common thing in the last years, there are more and more suppliers of cosmetic ingredients and more and more ingredients are becoming available to the DIY homecrafter.
However, while the will to make cosmetics has increased significantly, the same cannot be said about the will to understand and study  exactly what we are dealing with.

[I have written already a post on the most common mistakes people do when they start making cosmetics at home, you can read it here repetita iuvant!]

Safe Handling of Cosmetic Ingredients.jpg

The toxicity of common cosmetic ingredients can be extremely high so you need to handle ingredients with care: being too comfortable around cosmetic ingredients is a dangerous thing (even people who work in the cosmetic industry risk getting too comfortable around the ingredients, but at least they know about this risk… and they try to do something about it).

I have seen many people comparing the making of cosmetics at home to cooking, and if this could be true to some extent, it is also true that the cosmetic ingredients we commonly use are much more toxic and much more concentrated than any food item we might deal with. A simple example: caffeine can be deadly if ingested above a certain amount and when making cosmetics we usually handle its pure powder form.

Here are a few things you might not have considered before:

– Storage of your Cosmetic Ingredients: 
Many suppliers of cosmetic ingredients don’t send the ingredients in safe containers. Sometimes I have received powder ingredients in thin plastic bags, tied with a knot. Needless to say, I have ever since avoided these suppliers, but if this has happened to you too, do not keep the ingredients in those bags: put them in a proper container, possibly with a good lid. The best option is usually glass but most of the time plastic jars are fine as well.
You should store all your ingredients in a dedicated space, well separated from food items.
You should label all your jars and bottles containing cosmetic ingredients. On the label you should write at least the name of the ingredient and the expiry date (serious suppliers do this job for you).
In case you are storing some ingredients in a fridge or freezer (for instance oils, to increase their shelf life) which also contains food items (if you can, invest in a separate fridge/freezer), you should make sure that the label is very well visible and that everyone with access to the fridge understands that even if they see “walnut oil”, that is not a food grade ingredient and they cannot use it for cooking.
Pay particular care in labeling dangerous ingredients, for example the bottle containing 18% Sodium Hydroxide solution. You know that “18% Sodium Hydroxide” is dangerous and shouldn’t be played with or, specially, drank… but other people around the house might not know it. A red underlined “VERY DANGEROUS” on the bottle should help avoid terrible things from happening.
To keep your kids and pets safe from your ingredients: find a proper space, lock the cabinet or lock the door to your “lab” space.

– Preserving is essential:
I will never stress this enough: yes, preservatives are not fresh water and therefore they need to be handled carefully, but they are essential if you are adding water to any of your cosmetics (and sometimes they should be added even in anhydrous formulas).
Yet, the most common reply I receive when I tell people that they should have added a preserving system in their formula is that “My cosmetic is just fine: there are no visible signs of mold or bacteria, no change in smell nor color…”. Well, trust me, there is no way you can tell by simply staring at your cosmetics if they are full of bacteria or not.
Let’s make some healthy scaremongering: badly preserved cosmetics can lead to blindness and even death (no joking here – check online news).
I hope it is clear now that preserving your formulas is really essential.
And since there is more to preserving than just adding whatever preservative you have at hand to the formula (for the record: vitamin E, essential oils, antioxidants are NOT preservatives), I will write a post on this subject soon enough!

– Handling Acid and Alkaline ingredients:
You should always follow good practices when you make cosmetics, but this becomes specially crucial when you are dealing with acids or alkaline ingredients. I am talking about for example glycolic acid, lactic acid (even citric or ascorbic acids) and sodium hydroxide.
If you don’t know what the pH is, don’t care to learn about it, don’t have a way to measure it… forget using these ingredients in your formulas (or forget making cosmetics at home all together).
These are dangerous ingredients, when added to a cosmetic they should always be buffered and they need to be handled with special care: wear goggles, wear gloves, wear long sleeves, don’t allow any distraction when using them (no kids, pets, whatever might come in the way).
When you deal with ingredients that have pH<2 or pH>12, you are dealing with ingredients that are so willing to react with water that if they touch your skin they are going to use whatever water you have in it: this is how they “burn” the skin.
But while Acids hydrolize proteins and create a hard necrotic barrier that stops themselves from entering your skin any further, alkaline ingredients instead saponify the fats in your skin (those of you who make soaps should already be acquainted with this), creating a soft necrotic tissue that lets hydrogen ions penetrate further and create more damage. You can assess the severity of the contact with an acid after few hours, but with an alkaline substance it can take even 2 to 3 days.
What to do in case you come into contact with highly concentrated acids or bases:
– immediately wash under running water (for a long time – consider 15 minutes)
– call the doctor (specially if the drop hit the eyes)
– do not rub the eyes: the damage will be greater
– DO NOT try to buffer the substance adding an acid or a base to the skin. Only use running water.
The damage is proportional to the concentration of the substance, the area of contact and the time it was left there.

– Ingredients and pH
The importance of the pH is not only with regards to acids and bases: any ingredient we use in cosmetics has a preferred pH range at which it should be used and this might create incompatibilities with other ingredients.
I have already  talked about it in the post about pH, but let’s say it again: while some substances will simply not work well if you don’t respect their pH range (high molecular weight hyaluronic acid for example, or even carbopols which work well only around pH 5-6), other ingredients can become really nasty.
It is the case of Urea (never above pH 6) and Niacinamide (good between pH 6 and pH 7.5).
Learn about each ingredient you intend to use way before you start formulating with it. Research for incompatibilities with other ingredients and research the suggested pH range of use.
Avoid mixing too many ingredients, specially if you have just started making cosmetics (I know it is tempting): try making simple cosmetics instead.

– Ingredients and their concentration
Also concentration can be critical: adding a higher percentage of an ingredient to a formula compared to what is suggested in the MSDS is never a smart idea.
The least damage you will do will be wasting the ingredient: Q10 suggested concentration of use is 0.1%. If you add 1% to a formula, you will make the formula very expensive but it won’t be more effective. You will simply end up having a very yellow cream and a waste of 0.9% of the ingredient.
But it can get worse than this with certain ingredients: alpha-bisabolol is a very good, soothing ingredient at 0.5% but it can irritate at 1% or above. Glycerin is hydrating if used around 5%, but it might dry the skin if used at much higher concentrations. Allantoin is a lovely film-forming, hydrating and soothing ingredient but its solubility in water is limited to 0.5%. If you add 1% it will form micro (and not so micro) crystals that can actually damage your skin when you apply the cream.

Making cosmetics at home is an amazing thing, but you need to e aware of what you are doing! So learn, study the ingredients and enjoy formulating with awareness!! 😉
That’s all for today!
Hope this was helpful 🙂

8 thoughts on “Safe Handling of Cosmetic Ingredients”

  1. Hi,
    Your posts are very nice. Can i use Polysorbate-20 to make soluble water and oil mixtures without heating. one percent of Polysorbate-20 can make soluble water mixture in oil mixture.
    M.H Chaudhry


    1. You CAN, but better use 20 and 80 mixed in different percentages so you can emulsify better. It is not a road I have ever followed but it used to be a very common combination. You can easily find formulas about it. 🙂


  2. Hey!!
    I just want to know that in SHAMPOO which color are used?? Food color or color pigment?? Which one is more better???


  3. Hello dear, I want to make a hyaluronic serum, with more than one active, amino acids etc but i want to add ingredients, that are only compatible with each other, do you have any list or is there a website, where I can see, what active is compatible with which? Thanks in advance.


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