Chemical Analysis in Cosmetics: Using Spectrophotometry for Toxicology and Quality Testing

variety of cosmetics chemical analysis
Many cosmetics and other dermatological products contain toxic ingredients that may be harmful. Spectral analysis can provide important information to help ensure the safety and quality of these products.
Image Source: Flickr user NoirKitsuné


For centuries, cosmetics have been used to enhance a person’s appearance and to improve the quality of their skin. Today’s cosmetics market is an international superpower, offering an overwhelming variety of options. When faced with all those options, consumers using the quality and safety of a product to dictate their spending. Chemical analysis is often used to ensure both the purity and quality of cosmetics and other dermatological formulations. Unfortunately, cosmetics frequently include toxic ingredients, but the good news is that new technology like spectrophotometers can help producers detect impurities and other harmful additives in makeup. Spectrophotometers provide a safe, simple and effective method of chemical analysis of cosmetics.

Urea and other toxic chemicals

One of the biggest concerns in the cosmetic industry today is the use of urea as a preservative. This substance is popular because of its ability to sustain moisture in cosmetic products, thereby increasing their shelf-life. Trace amounts of urea are harmless and can be found on the epidermal layer of the skin. However, the manmade additive that is commonly used in both cosmetic products and other dermatological formulations consists of a synthetic mixture of ammonia and carbon dioxide. It has also been known to cause contact dermatitis for many people and to release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Urea increases the rate of skin absorption for a given product, so it is often used to help products penetrate the skin faster and more effectively. However, this enhanced absorption also accelerates its harmful effects. The use of urea as a cosmetic additive has already been banned in Canada. Many consumers and cosmetic safety organizations in the U.S. like the Environmental Working Group ( are pushing for a toxic chemical reform that would ban the use of urea and other harmful substances.

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Common products that may contain urea include (but are not limited to):

  • Deodorant
  • Mouthwash
  • Hair Colorant
  • Lotions
  • Shampoos
  • Foundations
  • Lip Balm/Treatments
  • Mascara
  • Nail Polish
  • Self-Tanners
hand lotion chemical analysis
Urea is commonly used in many cosmetic and dermatological formulations. Its high level of absorbency makes it ideal for cream- and lotion-based products, but this characteristic also increases its toxicity.
Image Source: Flickr user Shawn Campbell

Spectrophotometric determination of urea and other elements

How, exactly does this chemical analysis work? According to the NCBI Public Med article Spectrophotometric Determination of Urea in Dermatologic Formulations and Cosmetics, spectrophotometers can provide “a rapid, relatively sensitive, and low-cost method for the determination of water-soluble urea content in dermatological therapy products and cosmetics.” This method of chemical analysis in cosmetics is easy, effective, and time-efficient since it can produce immediate results. The use of simple water as a soluble base provides the safest method of chemical analysis because it does not require the use of other harmful substances. With new FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations on the verge of reform, the cosmetic industry can use this technology to ensure consumer safety and quality in their products and to meet new regulatory standards.

Not only does spectral technology provide an effective method for the detection of toxins, it can also determine other impurities in cosmetics and dermatological formulations for process monitoring and quality control (QC). Using color technology for chemical analysis in cosmetics allows manufacturers to create specific formulations that are free of impurities, which can then be repeatedly used for quality control. This versatile and affordable tool is a “must have” for maintaining uniformity and safety, which is needed to remain competitive in today’s global market.

rouge chemical analysis for makeup
Spectral technology is highly adaptable and can meet a variety of analytical needs in cosmetic and dermatologic formulation.
Image Source: Flickr user Kanko*

Spectrophotometric instrumentation and options

Over the past century, spectrophotometric technology has grown in leaps and bounds. New advancements have made this instrumentation both affordable and versatile, creating hundreds of applications for chemical analysis. Sphere-based technology offers the most accurate representation of color, allowing for the differentiation of both chemical elements and visual perception qualities. The cosmetic and dermatological industries depend on this advanced technology for quality and product safety. At HunterLab, we specialize in specific industry needs and develop our instrumentation accordingly. For more information on the versatility of our products and how chemical analysis is used in cosmetics and dermatologic formulations, contact HunterLab today.

  • Sean Coyne

    Hello Hunter Lab,
    Our brand, Foxbrim Naturals, currently sources a scar cream from a manufacturer and we would like to implement a quality control measure to ensure the chemical makeup of the cream remains consistent batch-to-batch. We are currently undergoing clinical efficacy with this product and want to insure our customers receive the same quality of scar reduction regardless of the batch it came from. We are interested in understanding how your services could help us achieve this level of quality control.


    Sean Coyne

  • Harper Campbell

    It’s interesting to learn that because of cosmetic industries have used urea as a preservative, that there is chemical testing to help make sure the amount is not above a certain limit. To me as a consumer, it makes me feel better knowing that they are making their products as safe as they can. This really shows that they care about the people that uses their things.

  • anas

    Unfortunately . There are alternatives to urea probably . And until they are discovered cosmetics will be used . Some compromise is needed. Natural Organic methods are a good alternative

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