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Posted by Courtney Macdougall on

A much-questioned topic in clean cosmetics: colorants and dyes. There is so much conflicting information available and it’s hard to sift through it all to find the truth. We’re here with the facts to help you read labels and choose products that align with your ethos (and that work fabulously!). Keep reading for:

  • The basics of cosmetic colorants
  • Toxic colorants to avoid
  • Animal-derived colorants
  • Unethical colorants
  • The mineral-based colorants we use
  • Topical vs injectable cosmetic colorants


At the most basic level, cosmetic colorants can be divided into three groups – organic, inorganic, and fruit/vegetable colorants:


In this case, 'organic' just means it contains carbon atoms – it doesn’t have the conventional meaning of ‘organic’ that we usually associate with food or cosmetics. All organic colorants are either classified as dyes or pigments:

Organic Dyes: water-soluble colorants that are synthetically produced from petroleum oil or coal-tar derivatives. They’re usually labeled with D&C or FD&C at the beginning. Often contaminated with lead or arsenic, these ingredients have been linked to cancer and organ system toxicity (more on this below).

Organic Pigments: oil dispersible colorants commonly used in cosmetics. Many are produced from FD&C dyes and carry most of the same risk and characteristics.


Inorganic colorants are derived from mineral compounds like zinc oxide and iron oxide. Considered very safe for use in cosmetics, no adverse health effects have been reported. 


Derived from bright fruits and vegetables like beets, cherries, grapes, blueberries, peaches, tomatoes and more.



So now that you know the basics, which colorants should you definitely steer clear of? Keep reading for the most commonly used toxic cosmetics colorants to say no to:


Classified as a possible human carcinogen, the FDA has banned Carbon Black from use in cosmetics, especially for eye products. Despite this ban, this colorant is still used in many mascaras, eyeliners, brow products, eyeshadows, and lash extension adhesives. Carbon Black is listed on Environment Canada Domestic Substance List as a high human health priority that’s expected to be harmful or toxic.  

On labels, look for: CI 77266 or Black no. 2 D&C 


Derived from coal tar, these synthetic dyes are often contaminated with lead and arsenic which have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and reproductive toxicity.  

While the FDA has set a 10ppm limit for these contaminants, these limits are based on single usage and don’t consider the long-term effects of using countless colored cosmetics daily with varying levels of these contaminants over the course of our lives. These carcinogens can build up in our system and the long-term effects have not been studied to verify that these limits are protective. On labels, look for: FD&C + color + number. Ex: FD&C Yellow No. 5

The bottom line: avoid carcinogens like lead and arsenic at any level if you can. There are so many non-toxic options available now, there’s no reason to expose yourself to unnecessary toxins.

The caveat: some brands do take contamination levels seriously and test rigorously to ensure levels are low or non-existent. Message brands to make sure.


Many Lake pigments are produced from FD&C colors and can carry the same potential health risks.  

The main pigments to watch out for/avoid: Orange 5 Lake (CI 45370), Red 6 Lake (CI 15850), Red 7 Lake (CI 15850), Red 21 Lake (CI 45380), Red 27 Lake (CI 45410), Red 30 Lake (CI 73360), Red 33 Lake (CI 17200), Blue 1 Lake (CI 42090), Yellow 5 Lake (CI 19140), Yellow 6 Lake (CI 15985)


Mostly commonly found in hair dyes, resorcinol is used as a colorant and fragrance ingredient. It’s been shown to have high organ system toxicity and can be very irritating to the skin.  

On labels, look for: resorcinol, 1,3-benzenediol, resorcin, 1,3- dihydroxybenzene (m-hydroxybenze, m-dihydroxyphenol)



Carmine is a vibrant red pigment created from crushing up and boiling female cochineal insects (beetles). It’s behind most of the bright red coloring you see in eye makeup, lipsticks, and nail polish.  

On labels, look for: Carminic Acid, Cochineal Extract, Crimson Lake, CI 75470, E120, Natural Red 4, Carmine Lake


Guanine is derived from the scales of fish. It’s used in many cosmetics to create a shimmery, iridescent effect.  

On labels, look for: Pearl Essence or CI75170.




The base of many cosmetic powder products, mica is behind the shimmer, shine, or glow in many eyeshadows, blushes, bronzers, and even toothpaste. While considered non-toxic, mica has another big issue - most of world’s mica is produced using child labor. In India alone, over 22,000 children works as mica laborers. To avoid this issue, Mica can be synthetically created in a lab. Synthetic mica is listed as Synthetic Fluorphlogopite.

On labels, look for: Mica, C1 77019, Potassium Aluminum Silicate, Glimmer, Kaliglimmer, or Muskovit.


Colorants used in topically-applied cosmetics are one thing – colorants for injection or use under the skin (think microblading and permanent makeup) is another. 

Eyebrow tattoos, lash tints, and permanent makeup are not FDA-approved. The pigments themselves are considered cosmetic-grade and mostly FDA approved. However, this approval is for use in cosmetics worn on the skin. No pigments have been approved for implantation into the skin.


The most common concern with these pigments is heavy metal contamination and toxic added chemicals. Manufacturers in the US are not required to disclose the ingredients in their ink formulas. Also, intense skin burns during MRI or CAT scans have been reported with Iron Oxide-based pigments. 

The safest pigments available come from Germany, Spain, and France. These countries do not allow any of the 1300+ chemicals on the Council of Europe’s Banned Cosmetic Substances List in tattoo inks. If you are set on microblading/permanent makeup, ask your artist if they can source these safer inks for you (and ask for a full ingredient list).


Iron Oxides & Titanium Dioxide (CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499, 77891)

Originating from natural minerals and ores, these mineral-based colorants are processed after extraction to prevent heavy metal contamination that may be present in their natural form. Considered the most effective non-toxic cosmetic colorants available, these mineral pigments have no known adverse health effects. Iron oxides are also very gentle and non-irritating for those with sensitive skin.   

Every colorant (and ingredient) we use is of natural origin, with safety and purity as our most important consideration. We do not use any animal-derived ingredients in our formulas (minus the honey in our Lash & Brow Enhancing Serum which we are in the process of replacing with a vegan alternative). Beautiful, transformative effects are 100% possible with only non-toxic, natural, vegan ingredients. #beautywithoutsacrifice



Thanks for tuning in to our blog, Pluminati! Leave us your questions/comments below and don’t forget to say hi on Instagram!

-The Plume Team <3

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