What the FD&C? A look at artificial dyes in cosmetics (and food)

What the FD&C? A look at artificial dyes in cosmetics (and food)

Posted by Angela - Naturally Safe Cosmetics on 28th May 2020

If, like me, you are an avid label reader, chances are you’ve come across ingredients with the letters FD&C or just D&C – on both food and cosmetic labels.

So what does FD&C/D&C mean?

FD&C and D&C are the terms used for colour additives that have been approved and deemed safe for use in food, drugs and cosmetics, or just drugs and cosmetics. You might see these additives listed as FD&C Red 4, for example. As that name suggests, it is an artificial red colouring. Often, the words “lake” or “aluminum lake” also appear in the name, as in FD&C Red 33 Aluminum Lake. And, sometimes, the FD&C or D&C are left off the label completely and the colour just appears as Blue 1 or Blue 1 Lake.

What does Lake mean?

The word “Lake” indicates that the colour has been created by reacting a dye with an inert binder, usually a metallic salt. Aluminium (or Aluminum as it's called in the US) is often a component, hence the words “FD&C Red 40 Aluminum Lake”.

Why are FD&C colours used in cosmetics (and food for that matter)?

FD&C colours are popular because they can impart brilliant hues to products. It’s all about making products look attractive to the eye.

In cosmetics, artificial dyes might enable the manufacturer to create a lipstick in the classic ‘fire engine’ red shade. While it is possible to create a red coloured lipstick using more natural ingredients, like mineral pigments, it is difficult to achieve the same level of vibrancy that comes from synthetic dyes.

The same goes for food items. Brightly coloured foods like lollies, ice cream, icings and baked goods makes them more appealing, apparently, although there is zero nutritional value in the artificial colours.

How are FD&C colours made?

It is believed that the first artificial food colourings were created in 1856 from coal tar. These days they are made from petroleum. Over the years, a lot of different artificial colours have been developed – many of which have since been found to be toxic. Nowadays, only a few artificial dyes are still used in food.

Lakes are produced from FD&C colours, so they also contain petroleum and aluminium.

Are FD&C colours safe?

The safety of FD&C colours is a controversial topic and, although they are approved for use in food and cosmetics, it appears the jury is still out. Many of the studies investigating their safety were carried out decades ago. Arguably, exposure has increased in more recent times due to the increase in consumption of processed foods which often contain these ingredients.

One of the main concerns surrounding the safety of FD&C colours in food is their effects on children’s behaviour (hyperactivity, depression). Blue No. 1 is one of the alleged culprits here. These behavioural changes have been observed only in certain sensitive individuals. Generally speaking, many artificial dyes are still considered by some to be highly toxic, with concerns relating to cancer, allergies, reproductive & development disorders, neurological problems, kidney/renal problems, lung problems, hair loss, nausea and headaches.

Interestingly, in the UK in 2006, Nestlé removed all artificial colourings from its Smarties product and replaced them with natural ones. For a while this meant no blue Smarties, until 2008 when they were reintroduced using a natural blue dye derived from spirulina. Since 2010, the UK has required warnings on the labels of any foods containing artificial food dyes.

To add to the confusion, some countries allow the use of certain artificial dyes which have been banned in other countries. For example, Green No. 3 (also known as Fast Green) is approved by the FDA (US Food & Drug Administration) but banned in Europe. Other colours which are allowed in Europe are banned in the US.

Tip: You can avoid or reduce the amount of FD&C colours in your diet by sticking to fresh produce, meats and whole foods – they’re healthier than many processed foods anyway.

FD&C Colours in Cosmetics

(Image source: Canva)

What about the safety of FD&C colours in cosmetics?

FD&C and Lake colours can be found in all manner of cosmetics, including makeup (lipstick, lip gloss, eyeshadow, blush and nail polish), shampoo, soap, moisturising lotions, toothpaste and mouth wash. Not all synthetic colours have the same safety concerns. Some are considered to be safer than others. Some are approved for external use only. Others are not permitted to be used on eyes, lips and mucous membranes.

The concern with FD&C colours in cosmetics is that they are synthetically created from chemically refined petroleum oil or coal-tar derivatives that may be contaminated with toxic heavy metals. Of course, we know that products applied to the skin can be absorbed into the body. In the case of lipstick, we often ingest it so these colours can gain direct entry into the body via the mouth.

Are there alternatives to FD&C colours in cosmetics?

You can buy beautiful makeup (and personal care products) that is free from FD&C colours. Some natural makeup brands choose to avoid the use of FD&C colours in their products, instead creating gorgeous colours through the use of micas and iron oxides. Iron oxides can be used to create a range of gorgeous colours: ivory, cream, peach, rose, coral, green, blue, purple, bronze, brown, black and more. Although iron oxides are naturally occurring mineral deposits, they can contain trace amounts of heavy metals. For this reason, the iron oxides used in cosmetics and personal care products are synthetic. Some natural makeup products are coloured with ingredients from the garden like beetroot or, in the case of Clemence Organics Rose Tinted Lips and Hurraw! Black Cherry Tinted Lip Balm, a red dye extracted from the rind of the alkanna tinctoria (alkanet) root. For nail polishes, even the non-toxic brands still use the Lakes.


Disclaimer: The author and Naturally Safe Cosmetics are not health professionals. Any information or advice in this article is of a general nature only and not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. For medical advice regarding your own personal circumstances, we recommend you contact your GP or other healthcare professional.