Chemical Profile: Artificial Colors

Chemical Profile Artificial Colors MADE SAFE Blog

Why It Matters

Artificial colors can be found in products we use or consume daily, from packaged foods to cosmetics. Impurities often contained within artificial colors and dyes include carcinogens or heavy metal contaminants, and some colors are linked to endocrine disruption. Color additives are also associated with hyperactivity in children.

Unlike other cosmetic ingredients, color additives must be pre-approved by the FDA prior to incorporation in consumer products under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act. [11] However, ‘natural’ color additives derived from plant or mineral sources are generally excused from FDA certification. [10] Although in compliance with purity specifications and use limitations, ‘natural’ colors are not inspected for quality and safety prior to market roll-out. This is of concern, given consumer preference in recent years has been moving in the direction of favoring naturally derived over artificially created color additives in food and cosmetic products. [9]


While naturally derived color additives may be increasing in appeal, these ingredients could intentionally or unintentionally fall victim to the input of synthetic dyes or less expensive filler ingredients, in addition to microbial contamination or chemical residues from pesticides or solvents. [9]

What Is It?

Artificial colors can be derived from coal tar but are more commonly made from petroleum. [4] [10] Colors can be added to foods, cosmetics, hair dyes, and personal care products to perform a product function or to appear more attractive to the consumer. The use of Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 account for 90 percent of all dyes used in commerce. [4]


Artificial color additives in cosmetics exist in three forms: straight colors, lakes, and mixtures. [10] A straight color, like FD&C Blue No. 1, has not been mixed or reacted with another substance. Lakes, like Red 28 Lake, are synthesized through the reaction of straight colors with aluminum derivatives. Mixtures contain two or more color additives mixed together in the absence of a chemical reaction. [10]

Chemical Profile Artificial Colors Infographic MADE SAFE Blog

As opposed to flavor and other food additives, there is no “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) exemption for color additives. [9] Synthetic lakes and dyes are subject to batch certification by the FDA to assure purity and quality prior to reaching consumers, and are otherwise considered to be adulterated. [9]

Where It's Found

Artificial colors can be found in foods, cosmetics, hair dyes, and other personal care products.

The Health Concern

A number of artificial colors, individually and in combination, have been associated with increased hyperactivity in children, including those with pre-existing hyperactivity and without.[1][2][6][8] As a result of studies on hyperactivity, the United Kingdom banned a number of food dyes, [7] some of which are still legal in the United States.


In addition to hyperactivity in children, food dyes have been linked to hypersensitivity; [4] allergic reactions; [4] hastened dermal absorption in damaged skin; [5] genotoxicity; and brain, bladder, and testes tumor growth. [4] Red 3, though recognized as a carcinogen by the FDA and banned in cosmetics, is still allowed for use in foods. [4]


Artificial dyes are not considered to be ‘pure,’ in that they could contain impurities comprising over ten percent of the dye, some of which could be carcinogens. [4] Many artificial colors and dyes can also be contaminated with metals, such as lead, cadmium, nickel, copper, cobalt, and aluminum, amongst others. The FDA allows lead acetate in hair dyes up to 0.6%, in part responsible for coloring the hair black. [3] Additionally, FD&C Green No. 3, Red No. 3, and Yellow No. 6 are on the TEDX list of Potential Endocrine Disruptors.


Very little independent published research on artificial colorings exists, including research on mixtures of dyes, which is common practice. There are significant data gaps, and very few long-term studies. [4] However, what research does exist is cause for alarm, and a number of organizations have called for their ban.

Every color and dye is subject to the MADE SAFE Ecosystem Approach. Similar to our screening process for flavor, MADE SAFE does not automatically accept or reject color ingredients based on whether they are artificial or natural. Instead, we evaluate the individual components of every color and dye. In many cases, we also analyze the manufacturing process to determine if there are any incidental additives. If there is not substantial information about an ingredient’s safety, we exercise the precautionary principle, which means we don’t permit it until further testing can prove it is safe. 

Example artificial colors not permitted by MADE SAFE:

  • Blue 1

  • Blue 2

  • Green 3

  • Red 3

  • Red 40

  • Yellow 5

  • Yellow 6

How to Avoid It

Shop MADE SAFE® Certified hair dyes and other cosmetics subject to artificial coloring and dyes. Also, read labels to avoid artificial colors:

  • Avoid colorant “lakes,” which are usually expressed as a color and number combination, followed by the word “lake” (e.g., “Red 28 Lake,” “Yellow 6 Lake FD&C”).
  • Be wary of products that are marketed as using natural colors, as these are not evaluated by the FDA and may be subject to adulteration or contamination. [9]

When shopping for you and your family, opt for fresh, organic produce, and avoid heavily processed and packaged foods.


[1] Artificial food colouring and hyperactivity symptoms in children. (2009). Prescrire International, 18(103), 215.

[2] Bateman, B., Warner, J. O., Hutchinson, E., Dean, T., Rowlandson, P., Gant, C., . . . Stevenson, J. (2004). The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 89(6), 506-511.

[3] Borowska, S. and Brzoska, M. (2015). Metals in cosmetics: implications for human health. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 35(6): 551-572.

[4] Center for Science in the Public Interest. (2010). Food dyes: A rainbow of risks.

[5] Lucová, M., Hojerová, J., Pažoureková, S., & Klimová, Z. (2013). Absorption of triphenylmethane dyes brilliant blue and patent blue through intact skin, shaven skin and lingual mucosa from daily life products. Food and Chemical Toxicology: An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 52, 19-27.

[6] McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K., . . . Stevenson, J. (2007). Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: A randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet, 370(9598), 1560-1567.

[7] Ministers agree food colour ban: Ministers have agreed that six artificial food colourings should be phased out after research found a link with hyperactivity in children. (2008, Nov 12,). BBC.

[8] Schab, D. W., & Trinh, N. T. (2004). Do artificial food colors promote hyperactivity in children with hyperactive syndromes? A meta-analysis of double-blind placebo-controlled trials. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: JDBP, 25(6), 423-434.

[9] Simon, J.E., Decker, E.A., Ferruzzi, M.G., Giusti, M.M., Mejia, C.D., Goldschmidt, M., and Talcott, S.T. (2017). Establishing Standards on Colors from Natural Sources. Journal of Food Science. 82: 2539-2553.

[10] U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). (2017). Color Additives History. Accessed September 28, 2022.

[11] U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). (2022). Cosmetics & U.S. Law. Accessed September 28, 2022.

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