The Truth Behind May Contain Ingredient Lists

The Truth Behind May Contain Ingredient Lists

When it comes to may contain ingredient lists, there’s a lot of confusion out there. One of the most common questions that I get is asking what the may contain ingredient lists on products mean. I get at least a handful of emails each week from confused readers who don’t understand why a product that claims to be vegan has “may contain carmine” or “may contain beeswax” listed on the packaging. Does this mean the product isn’t vegan? Does it contain carmine, beeswax, or other ingredients?

This is something I have talked to many brands about. In this post, I share the three common reasons why brands put May Contain Ingredient Lists on their packaging.

This is the most recent update of a post originally published on August 19, 2015.

What do may contain ingredient lists mean?

Often times after a list of ingredients, you will see “may contain” followed by another list of various ingredients. This is very common on the packaging for cosmetics. Especially for products that contain a variety of shades. There are a few different things that may contain ingredient lists mean, and those will be explained in this post.

The Truth Behind May Contain Ingredient Lists

Sometimes instead of using the phrase “may contain”, a brand may use a “+/-” sign instead. This means the same as may contain.

The Truth Behind May Contain Ingredient Lists

1. The brand wants to use one ingredient list for all shades of a product, even if not all of the shades contain these ingredients.

This is the most common reasons for the “may contain” ingredient list to appear on products. Instead of printing new labels or new packaging for each individual shade, it is easier for many brands to list the ingredients that all the shades include and then under “may contain” list individual ingredients that only some shades include.

Examples of brands who do this are Makeup Geek, ColourPop, Charlotte Tilbury, and Anastasia Beverly Hills.

2. The product is made on (or could have been made on) shared equipment with other products that do contain these ingredients.

In these cases, brands are often being extra careful to avoid allergies that may occur. This is common with color additives and carmine.

Many brands share processing equipment with other products and sometimes other brands. Think of it as being the same as when you read “made on shared equipment with nuts or dairy” on food packaging. It doesn’t mean that those ingredients are used in the formulation but because the shared equipment is used, it’s possible that trace amounts of these ingredients may end up in the products.

Because of this, some brands may include these ingredients on the may contain lists. They also may be hesitant to name these products as vegan. For example, some brands often tell consumers products are not vegan because they are made on shared equipment as non-vegan products that do contain animal ingredients.

Examples of brands who do this are Charlotte Tilbury, Pixi Beauty, Paula’s Choice, Smashbox, and BECCA.

3. The brand is changing the formula of the product and wants to be prepared for mixed batches of the old and new formulas to be on the market.

This is pretty rare because a lot of brands don’t often reformulate their products on a regular basis. They are in the middle of reformulating a product and are sending out both batches into stores. Not all brands package product until it is being shipped out, so these labels are an easier way for them to make sure all potential ingredients that could be used in the products are listed.

Examples of brands who do this are Pixi Beauty, Paula’s Choice, and NYX.

In all of these cases, it’s always best to check with the brand about their practices. Many brands who use May Contain ingredient lists are very transparent if you ask about their policies regarding use when they are asked.

Hopefully, this will help to clear up some of the worries about May Contain Ingredient lists on products that are marketed as being vegan! If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I will do my best to answer it!


  1. Hello. I bought a liquid lipstick from physicians formula and it is a nude shade. On the ingredients list it said that it may contain carmine. When I emailed them, they told me that it is caused by cross contamination. Therefore should I consider this product carmine free or not? Thank you .

    1. It sounds like it’s because it’s made on shared equipment and does not contain carmine. I would consider it carmine-free. That said, it’s completely up to you and how you feel about shared equipment.

  2. Do you consider products that say “may contain” still vegan? I would say yes because same with food a lot of certified vegan items even say “manufactured on shared equipment with milk,eggs, etc. would you personally use these may contain products?

    1. It depends on why it says may contain. If it says that because it’s made on shared equipment, then I do consider them vegan. Or if a brand confirms that they are just using the same ingredient listing and there are vegan options, then I consider those vegan. But if it’s on there because sometimes those ingredients are included then I do not.

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