How To Read An INCI List
A simple guide on how to read and understand the ingredients list (INCI list) on the back of your beauty product packaging and better inform your buying choices.
You may be asking, what on earth is an INCI list? Or perhaps you know what it means but still feel unsure of how it works.
Just as with food packaging, it is a legal requirement for all beauty product manufacturers to clearly lay out which ingredients have been used in the products they sell to you the public. The international standard for displaying these ingredients is called International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) and was established in the early 1970s by the Personal Care Products Council. The purpose for this is to make it clear to anyone in any country what your products contain – all plant- based ingredients are named by their Latin name and all synthetic chemicals by their scientific name.
Though, once you’ve picked up your favourite beauty product it becomes pretty evident that you probably need to be a chemist, scientist or in fact Latin, in order to really understand what all these ingredients are.
To put this into perspective, there are over 16000 ingredients listed on INCI for use in the cosmetics industry according to the Chemical Inspection and Regulation Service. That is a massive variety of chemical ingredients that could be in your beauty products. In organic and natural formulation however, the list is much smaller, though still vast and currently containing around 6000 raw materials on the COSMOS-standard cosmetics list. COSMOS is the international certifying standard for organic and natural certified products.
What You Need To Know
Ingredients in each product are listed from highest quantity to lowest up to 1% of the content, after which any order is allowed.
For example, a water-based moisturiser will list Aqua (Water) or, as happens in natural skincare, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice (Aloe Vera Juice) as its first ingredient – this often makes up about 65% – 70% of the entire formula and then the next three to five listed ingredients the other majority. Often the last 7 – 10 ingredients listed are in amounts of less than 1% with some preservatives and by-products making up only 0.001%.
In order to assess what most of your product consists of with layman’s knowledge, you should look at the first 4 – 5 ingredients listed as those will be the most plentiful. Alternatively, it does not always mean that active ingredients or even preservatives in small amounts are ineffective or harmless as some ingredients are very powerful and will always appear in small amounts. The reason certifiable organic and natural products are important is that they contain a strict list of safe and acceptable synthetic and natural chemicals that may be used in small amounts as preservatives to combat bacterial growth and rancidity in your products and increase their shelf life and safety, therefore not all synthetic ingredients are bad by definition.
Common Confusion Points
Without a degree in chemistry it can be very difficult to understand exactly what your product is made up of, the scientific terms can be confusing for even the most experienced natural beauty enthusiast. A common confusion point is the similarities of some names that look like the same thing but are something entirely different, like the word alcohol for example. If you suffer from very dry or sensitive skin you may decide to avoid alcohol in your skincare ingredients, you then find a product that has Cetearyl Alcohol or Cetyl Alcohol listed in the top half of the ingredients list and you think you should avoid it, however, these ingredients are not alcohol at all, but emulsifying waxes derived from palm kernel or coconut oil. Thus, taking a little time to get educated on some of the more common ingredient names is very helpful. Alcohol itself always appears on an ingredient list as Alcohol, alcohol denat, ethyl alcohol or ethanol and in different quantities will be used either as a solvent (in perfumes for example) or as a preservative in skincare.
Some manufacturers will make it a little easier by including the common name of natural ingredients in brackets, for example Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil or Cera Alba (Beeswax) but it is not legally necessary for them to do so and therefore not always so easy for us to understand. A good rule of thumb is that many of these are followed by words like ‘seed oil’ ‘fruit oil’ ‘flower oil’ etc and will mean that they are naturally occurring plants
Chemically Derived Ingredients
With chemically derived ingredients it isn’t quite so simple and of course we can’t be expected to just know or learn them all, so below is a list of scientific names to look out for on your ingredients list that are not accepted as being part of the natural and organic products standard:
- any names ending in ‘-paraben’ will mean that your product contains a synthetic paraben-based preservative and has been flagged as a possible hormone disruptor.
- names ending in ‘-ethicone’ or ‘polymer’ will mean that it contains silicone – a man-made synthetic plastic-like ingredient that often does not biodegrade in the environment or allow the skin to breath, used to give a smooth, matte or air-brushed like finish on the skin.
- names that include the letters ‘PEG’, ‘PPG’ or ‘propylene glycol’ – a synthetic petrochemical derived ingredient used as a humectant.
- ‘sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate’ – this grease stripping ingredient often described as ‘derived’ from coconut but mostly derived from petroleum causes a product to foam and can be very harmful to the skin’s protective lipid layer.
- ‘petrolatum’ – essentially petroleum jelly or most commonly known as Vaseline – this is a petrochemical derived emollient that does not serve any real purpose other than to be used as a cheap filler and for the texture of a product.
- ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ – this can mean a myriad of synthetic ingredients has been used to create a product’s fragrance profile and they do not have to be listed individually, this one word could hide on average 15-20 of 3000+ allowable ingredients that you may have sensitivities to including synthetic allergens such as phthalates and toluene which can cause a myriad of symptoms in sensitive people. There is also the question of ethical issues with ingredients such as musks from animal origin. Most natural and organic products will add an * with the disclaimer ‘from natural essential oils’ to show that their fragrance profile is natural.
This is by no means a definitive list of ingredients to avoid, but they are the main ones that you will be able to pick up in products that may market themselves as ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ and use the terms ‘made with organic ingredients’ or similar greenwashing taglines. Not all good natural cosmetic brands are certified and there are a number of reasons for this with small independent brands, but that does not automatically mean they do not adhere to good or high quality organic ingredients – many brands do comply with COSMOS standards and higher without certification and that is when knowing what to look out for on an INCI list is helpful. When in doubt, go for products with fewer ingredients and simpler blends that are easier to understand.
Further reading articles: