Series from a question from Patreon: What’s a cosmeceutical? What’s an active? And how much can we use of these things in combination? Part one – definitions

In the October Q&A on Patreon, Michelle asked: I am loving the latest e-zines with all the lovely cosmeceuticals. I am wondering what exactly is considered an ‘active’ ingredient, and if there is a maximum percentage recommended for total active ingredients in a formulation. I have been experimenting with many of the cosmeceuticals in an eye gel that I want to be anti-aging with antioxidants. I am working with a formula as follows: 51% water, 20% hydrosol (neroli), 10% oil, 5% mulberry root extract, 3% Eye Complex 4 (from Making Cosmetics [Palmitoyl tripeptide-5, panthenol, sodium hyaluronate, algae (dunaliella salina) extract]), 2.5% D’Orientine, 2.5 Sepimax Zen, 2% Sea Kelp Bioferment, 2% propanediol1,3, 1% Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, 1% Penoxyethanol SA. This is a lovely eye gel but it does tingle slightly (but goes away in less than a minute) when applied to my eye are. As far as I can determine, each of these ingredients alone shouldn’t cause this sensitivity so I am wondering if in this case too much of a good  thing is just too much. What are your thoughts? My pH meter is on order, so with the pH strips, it measures at 6.

In the same post, Belinda said: I will second Michelle’s comment. I, too, have been wondering how many cosmeceuticals is too many. Right now I’m experimenting with the ones I have one at a time, but when I’m sure I’m not reacting to any of them individually, I’d like to use combinations of them in an anti-aging facial lotion. Are there any guidelines for formulating with multiple cosmeceuticals?

In the same post, Mimi added: I have the same question as Michelle and Belinda.  Is there a limit to how many cosmeceuticals you can add to a face cream?  I put about 6-7 anti aging products that I bought from Lotioncrafter into 1 face cream, but I’m not sure doing this will cause one product to react with another and nullify the effectiveness. 

Okay, this is the kind of question I could use as the starting point for weeks of posts, and it’s one that will take some time to unpack, so let’s start at the very beginning…which I understand is a very good place to start. (Hey, Julie Andrews never lies! Never!)


“In the USA, according to the FDC act of 1938, a cosmetic is defined as an article intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body or any part thereof for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance without affecting structure or function (1). It is noteworthy that in this definition the cosmetic is not allowed to have any activity (i.e., without affecting structure or function).” (Reference: Cosmeceuticals and Active Cosmetics, page 11).

In Canada, Health Canada defines a cosmetic as “any substance or mixture of substances, manufactured, sold or represented for use in cleansing, improving or altering the complexion, skin, hair or teeth and includes deodorants and perfumes. This definition also includes cosmetics used by professional esthetic services, as well as bulk institutional products (e.g. handsoap in school restrooms).” For instance: “Products that have a therapeutic claim or that contain certain ingredients that are not permitted in cosmetics are considered to be over-the-counter drugs and are handled by the Therapeutic Products Programme, for example sunscreens.” (More on this topic at Health Canada).

The moment that cosmetic has some activity – for instance, a dandruff shampoo to treat dandruff versus a shampoo that cleans your hair – it isn’t considered a cosmetic under these rules, it’s a drug. This is why we can’t say something like “gets rid of age spots” – because that alters the appearance. Instead, we have to say something like “may promote a more even complexion”.

Albert Kligman notes, “With the great advances in our understanding of skin physiology, it is impossible to think of a single substance that cannot, under some circumstances, alter the structure and function of skin, especially when repeatedly applied, which daily grooming practices ensure.” 

I understand definitions in the EU, Japan, or other parts of the world may be different, but I figure if I start with Canada – which is where I live – and the States, which is where most of my textbooks are written, I’ll have at least two countries to compare, if necessary.


What is a cosmeceutical? I’ve written about this at length on both this blog and in a few e-zines that will eventually become an e-book over the next few months – fingers crossed! – but I find it helpful to go back to my books and references to make sure I’m on the right track just in case I lost something in translation somewhere.

They’re “cosmetic products with properties very similar to a pharmaceutical product (drug-like benefits)“. (p. 295, Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology.)

“Increasingly though products which are considered cosmeceuticals actually do affect the structure or function of the skin and thus have drug-like effects but are marketed using appearance-based claim.” (Cosmetic Formluation of Skin Care Products, page 187.)

From the coiner of this controversial term, Albert M Kligman:

I defined cosmeceuticals as topical formulations which were neither pure cosmetics, like lipstick or rouge, nor pure drugs, like corticosteroids. They lay between these poles, constituting a broad-spectrum intermediate group. Some were closer to drugs, such as the alpha-hydroxy acids—designed to exfoliate the outer, loose stratum corneum, a structural effect—whereas others were closer to cosmetics, like rouge—designed to give color, a purely decorative effect. (Reference: page 1, Cosmeceuticals & Active Cosmetics)

The Australasian College of Dermatologists notes,

Cosmeceuticals are products that have both cosmetic and therapeutic (medical or drug-like) effects, and are intended to have a beneficial effect on skin health and beauty. Like cosmetics, they are applied topically as creams or lotions but contain active ingredients that have an effect on skin cell function. In some cases, their action is limited to the skin surface (such as exfoliants), while others can penetrate to deeper levels, either enhancing or limiting normal skin functions. Cosmeceuticals are available “over-the-counter” (without prescription) and are generally used as part of a regular skin care regime to help improve skin tone and texture, pigmentation and fine lines. 

Most moisturisers restore barrier function and water content to the skin, improving the appearance of aged or dry skin. Cosmeceuticals should ideally deliver the active ingredient in a biologically effective form to the skin and reach the target site in sufficient quantity to have an effect.

(Read the rest of that post, as it’s very interesting and has loads of examples of cosmeceuticals.)

I could provide you with post after post, reference after reference, but the general idea is the same – they’re ingredients we add to our products to offer a specific benefit, like anti-aging, creating a more uniform skin tone, alleviating acne, and so on. You can never make a claim that the product you make with those ingredients will fix, heal, or repair anything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t include ingredients in your products that might be of benefit. Ingredients like Co-enzyme Q10, niacinamide, or MSM would be considered cosmeceuticals by this definition.

Having said this, the FDA (US) states, “The term “cosmeceutical” has no meaning under the law.”

This is still kinda vague, but I feel like I know what a cosmeceutical is when I see it. But do I?

I’ve spent the last few days researching this topic, and had at least five pages of notes, and I think it’s definitely something we can call them. I think cosmeceuticals implies something that active ingredients doesn’t, but it is a term we can use.

Do I see a difference between “cosmeceutical” and “active”? Sort of, I guess? I’m not completely sure given that there really isn’t consensus on what cosmeceuticals are, but I think there’s a difference between adding magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (a type of Vitamin C) liposomes into a product and adding some rosehip powder. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but there may be more standardization of the amount of Vitamin C we find in those liposomes and what we find in rosehip powder.

Having said that, I’ve spent some time at Perry Romanowsky’s Chemists’ Corner, and he has some good posts on the topic. If you’d like an interesting read, check out his posts on the topic – including three categories of ingredients, and do active ingredients in cosmetics work?. 

Okay, so now that I’ve messed with your head quite a lot, let’s take a break and resume this when we see enough comments!

This post appeared on a few weeks ago, on my Patreon feed. If you’d like to see these posts three to four weeks earlier, click here for more information on my Patreon feed. $10 subscribers get an e-zine as well as discounts from awesome shops, like Lotioncrafterbut you can subscribe at as little as $1 a month to gain access to the feed.

Why sign up for Patreon? Because this is my full time job now, and your subscription helps me write more and experiment with more ingredients and equipment for the blog!

Want to see part two of this series? Unlock the next post with your comments!

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