Common Disgusting Ingredients in Cosmetics

6 minute read

By Jordana Weiss

Do you check the ingredient list of your favorite cosmetics? It’s usually full of long and unpronounceable chemical compounds. Some of those ingredients can be pretty gross, though. Start a search today to learn about disgusting cosmetic ingredients.

Some of the ingredients listed have been phased out or replaced with a synthetic version. Check out this list below and see if you know any of the ordinary ingredients that come from these disgusting sources.


Ambergris has been used as a key ingredient in perfume for many years. It’s a staple of the luxury perfume industry because it serves as the base for many different scents without overpowering them. It also helps fix scents to the skin. Ambergris was first found washed up on the beach and it took years before people realized what it was.

Ambergris is crystallized whale secretions — usually vomit or feces — that travel through the ocean and eventually harden and wash up on the shore. Out in the ocean, it smells fishy and unpleasant, but once it hardens, it smells earthy, musky, and sweet.

Shark liver oil

The chemical squalene is found in many different sources, including humans. It’s what helps our skin stay soft and moisturized. However, in dry times like the winter when our bodies can’t produce the amount of squalene we require to keep our skin hydrated, we turn to artificial moisturizers.

Many of these contain squalene sourced from other animals, like sharks. Most commercial squalene used in the cosmetic industry comes from shark livers. Many different types of sharks are hunted in order to harvest their livers. Shark livers regularly sell for up to $7 a pound.


Most people try and spend time to get rid of aggravating rust when they find it on any of their possessions, but did you know it’s way more prevalent than most people think? Rust, or rather, the chemical compound ferrous oxide that comes from rust, is found in many different cosmetics, where it is used as a coloring agent.

Ferrous oxide often masquerades as different types of red-brown pigments that are added to cosmetics to make them a pinkish color. Although it might shock you to learn that the cosmetic industry uses heavy metals as a coloring agent, their use is strictly regulated by the FDA.


Many people were enamored with the new multi-level marketing company LipSense, whose bright and colorful lipsticks and lip-glosses exploded over social media this past year. LipSense is a patented system that many people were shocked to learn stays on your lips like no other product.

Many new users experienced a tingling when first using the product. They were shocked to learn that the tingling was caused by the alcohol the company included, which helped color adhere to the lips, evaporating. Many people found the sensation uncomfortable and were concerned about the use of alcohol in cosmetics. Some stopped their use of the product completely.


That’s right, you read that correctly. Human foreskin that is donated to science is often used to create fibroblasts, a type of cell that has proved very helpful in regenerating skin. It is used primarily in anti-aging cosmetics for these properties. The cosmetics that use fibroblasts claim to be able to slow down the aging process, and even re-grow skin cells.

In addition to serving as a key ingredient in anti-aging cosmetics, these discarded foreskins are often used for testing cosmetics.


The chemical glucosamine, which you may have found listed on the ingredient lists for your favorite moisturizers and skin creams, is primarily found in and harvested from the bone marrow of chickens. Glucosamine helps even out and moisturize skin.

Another helpful chemical that comes from chickens is hyaluronic acid, which is primarily used in the anti-aging cosmetic industry. Hyaluronic acid is found mostly in rooster combs, and in the last 35 years, production of this chemical has increased an astronomical level.

Bull sperm

A luxury salon in London recently started selling their newest spa treatment, a protein-boosting hair mask that contains bull sperm. Many people believe that the bull sperm boosts hair growth and shine like no other treatment, and are prepared to shell out the big bucks to apply freshly-harvested bull semen to their hair.

The bull semen hair mask is left on to dry under a heat lamp, then washed off. This isn’t the first time animal semen has been used for beauty products. A Norwegian company swears by cod semen as an ingredient in their moisturizer. If this grosses you out, you aren’t alone.

Fish scales

If you’ve ever admired the shimmery look of your shampoo or nail polish and thought that it looked like miniature fish scales, you were way closer to the truth than you knew. The chemical that provides that lovely shimmer is called crystalized guanine, and it’s harvested from actual fish scales. The reason the chemical is called guanine is because, originally, it was sourced from bat guano. Eventually, scientists realized that it could also be found in fish scales.


The placenta, which helped nourish us before we were born, has recently been tapped to help nourish us (well, mostly our skin and hair) after birth as well. There are a few companies now who use placentas as a key source of protein, as well as the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. These companies use the placenta (luckily, not human placenta) in their protein-rich hair masks. The cosmetic industry primarily relies on extracts of sheep placenta.

Bird poop

The Geisha Facial (Uguisu no fun), which many tourists flock in droves to get, is special (and many people believe, effective) because it contains nightingale droppings. These droppings are used because they help whiten and exfoliate the skin. The treatment has been commonplace in Japan and Korea for centuries.

It was first introduced during the Heian period (between 794 and 1185 AD) as a stain remover, then was adopted as a skin brightener. Luckily for those undergoing the treatment, the droppings are only taken from nightingales fed an organic, vegetarian diet, and sterilized by UV light before being used on humans.


You might not want to know this, but the bright red of your favorite lipstick might come from crushed up beetles. The cochineal scale is a small beetle that has been used as a red dye for centuries. Although most people probably use at least one item that contains cochineal every day, recent backlash against the use of bugs in food has prompted many companies to stop using cochineal dye.

In cosmetics, you can see if your favorite products still contain beetles by checking for the ingredients cochineal, carmine, Natural Red 4, or carminic acid. All of these originate from the cochineal beetle.

Snail slime

Snail slime has recently slid its way into the hearts of many key cosmetic producers, who swear that the slime helps stimulate the production of various anti-aging compounds in human skin. Snail slime is harvested from lab grown snails, and filtered to purify and increase its concentration. The moisture rich slime is then added to different products that help stimulate the production of collagen and elastin in skin. Additionally, it is thought that the snail slime helps protect skin from damage and helps treat things such as rosacea or age spots.

Hooves and horns

Keratin, which is having a moment right now as a favored ingredient in hair treatments, is made from ground up animal by-products like hooves, horns, feathers, fur, and other parts of the animal that we don’t use for meat. The keratin sourced from farm animals helps protect the corresponding parts of our body. It’s especially great for human hair and nails. Although it may seem harsh to use these animals to our benefit, think of it as using all of the parts of the animal, instead of letting these unused bits go to waste.

Dead algae

When algae dries up and dies, its fossilized remains eventually degrade and become a substance called diatomaceous earth. It is a key ingredient in many different cosmetics because of its mild abrasiveness. The next time you use a soap that advertises its scrubbing properties, toothpaste, or deodorant, think about the dead algae cells that you’re slathering all over your body.

Jordana Weiss