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What is Lip Gloss Made of, Anyway? A Study of Ingredients

It started, as many fun projects do, with curiosity and a question. What is lip gloss made of? From there, it’s been a long investigative journey.

As a person who knew exactly zero on the subject of lip gloss ingredients a few days ago, I was at the same point you were. But after a lot of research, I’m ready to report on the topic of what makes up that favorite tube of gloss.

Mostly, lip gloss is made mostly of the following:

  1. Skin conditioners, like oils
  2. Thickeners, like waxes
  3. Colors
  4. Flavors/scents
  5. Emulisifiers, preservatives, and optional ingredients

We’ll be looking closely at an ingredient list for Buxom’s Full-On Plumping Lip Cream Gloss throughout this post for examples of what ingredients do.

Buxom's Full-On Plumping Cream Gloss promo photo
Our featured gloss for this post. Source.

But I’ll spell out the main idea behind these ingredients in layman’s terms—for after all, I am a layman.

Speaking of which, here’s my usual disclaimer on posts like these—I’m a curious dabbler and an enthusiastic googler, not a chemist. If you’re a chemist and find something wrong with what I’m saying here, I’d be so excited to hear from you so I can correct it. Check out my About page and please email me!

Skin Conditioners

First off, just about every lip gloss starts with a list of emollients: oils, butters, esters, stearates, and more.

Most lip glosses have tons of emollients in there, which is what gives lips that hydrated feel when you’ve got one on. You’ll see in a moment that six of the first seven ingredients in Buxom’s Full-On Plumping Cream Glosses, for example, are skin conditioners.

In fact, let’s take a look at the actual ingredient list for the Buxom gloss so you can get a feel for which ingredients are emollient. Look for similarities in the way these ingredient names end. This can help you make educated guesses on the use of like ingredients in other products.

An ingredient list with about half highlighted to demonstrate how many ingredients are moisturizing
All the skin conditioning ingredients I could identify. Source.

None of these ingredients will probably jump out at you as typical emollients. But some other lip glosses throw in things that are probably more identifiable to you as moisturizing ingredients. For those, we’re talking jojoba or soybean oil and shea butter. Tower 28’s ShineOn Jelly Lip Gloss has tons of moisturizing ingredients on its list that you’d recognize by name, like castor oil, avocado oil, apricot kernel oil, and raspberry seed oil.


What gives lip gloss its stick-to-it-tive-ness is waxes and other thickeners.

In almost every gloss ingredient deck, you’ll see something called “microcrystalline wax” (AKA “cera microcristallina”), and that’s there to thicken things up. You’ll find this ingredient pretty high up on the Fenty Gloss Bomb ingredient deck. That’s an actual wax.

Fenty gloss bomb promo photo
This pretty gloss has microcrystalline wax as a thickener. Source.

But sometimes, there are emollients or emulsifiers that aren’t waxes but double as thickeners. Stearates (like the octyldodecyl stearoyl stearate in Buxom’s Full-On Lip Polish, for example) are in the “skin conditioners” category. But they also help add to viscosity of the product, and they’re actually wax-like.

Polybutene is another ingredient that adds to the viscosity of lip gloss without being a wax, and so is silica (which, according to Beauty With Brains, is a perfectly safe ingredient in cosmetics). Even fatty alcohols can help thicken things up.

That’s how a lip gloss like Wet n Wild’s Megaslicks can get away with not having any waxes on their ingredient list. They’re thickened with things like polybutene and a little bit of oleyl alcohol.

Let’s look at some of the thickeners I found in our Buxom Full-On Plumping Cream Gloss.

An ingredient list with highlights to demonstrate how many ingredients are thickening
Thickening agents in our featured gloss from Buxom.


Unless the gloss is clear, there will certainly be some coloring agents added to the gloss.

Even if it’s clear and sparkly, you’ll likely find mica on the ingredient list.

Other coloring agents include iron oxide, which you can read plenty about in this post on foundation oxidation. Also in there might be red, blue, and yellow lakes, as well as titanium dioxide, which is an essential for lip glosses that need some opacity.

Here are the colors you can find in our Buxom gloss:

An ingredient list with highlights  to demonstrate how many ingredients are colorings
All the colors are at the bottom of most lip gloss ingredient lists.


That delicious flavored gloss you love? The ingredient that makes it taste like that is on the list somewhere. But it might be hidden.

Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker, a cult classic from childhood.
Not a gloss, but who doesn’t love this baby? The flavor is thanks to “flavor/aroma” and “sorbitol.” Sort of anticlimactic. Source.

Oftentimes, you’ll just see things like “aroma/flavor” and “parfum/fragrance,” like on the Fenty Gloss Bomb. But sometimes flavor and scent hides in unlikely-seeming places. Who’d have thought an ingredient called benzyl alcohol would be there for smell and taste?

Here are the things that affect the taste and smell of the Buxom Full-On Plumping Lip Cream Gloss.

An ingredient list with highlights to demonstrate how many ingredients add taste and smell.
Some sneaky ones hiding in there.

Emulsifiers, Preservatives, and Optional Ingredients

You’ll also find surfactants, binders, and emulsifiers (ingredients that help other ingredients blend together) in commercial lip glosses.

A few examples of these are sorbitan isostearate and copolymers.

Next, you’ll likely find preservatives like phenoxyethanol—or natural extracts, if the product is claiming to be in the clean beauty category.

Finally, if you’ve got a plumping gloss, you’ve probably got a mint-, cinnamon-, or hot-pepper-based ingredient in there as well. Of course, these are named complicated things like menthone glycerin acetal (mint) or capsicum frutescens resin (hot pepper) and not simply “cinnamon oil,” so you may just need to trust the packaging to know if it’s plumping or not.

Just a couple extras in the Buxom deck. The menthone glycerin acetal is what gives the gloss its hallmark minty tingle.

That Was a Lot!

If you were to do a simple DIY gloss, you’d probably end up with four or five ingredients in there: an oil, a wax, a coloring agent, and something to give it a flavor and/or scent.

But commercial lip glosses have a lot more than that going on!

So, as a reminder, what is lip gloss made of?

Well, tons of skin conditioners—we learned that, and we saw it firsthand from the Buxom ingredient deck. Also, there’s some stuff to thicken up all those moisturizing ingredients so they don’t slide right off your lips. Usually, that’s a wax, but other things can thicken, too.

Then there’s the colors, flavors, and scents that make each gloss unique. And finally, you’ll find preservatives, emulsifiers, and perhaps some optional plumping ingredients.

Hope that helped you break it down!