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INCI for dummies

Look at the picture to your right. How much do you understand of the list of ingredients? Most people will fall off the wagon after “water”.

This is an actual list of ingredients from a hair styling product that I used to own some years back. It was around the time when I was just getting interested in knowing what exactly was in the products I used daily, and after having looked at the ingredient list, I threw the bottle out.

This list contains many weird-sounding names that would be almost impossible to learn by heart. Luckily, there are a few ways that help the understanding of the ingredient declaration, or the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) a bit better.

  • Just have a look. The first thing you should do is – look at the ingredient list. Just look at it. Many people don’t even look at the ingredient lists because they believe that they won’t understand anything of it. And there’s a lot you won’t understand. But also you’re going to realize that hidden between all those hydroxypopyltimoniums are also ingredients that you do understand, such as parfum or citric acid. Try to take control over the INCI, and get into the habit of at least looking at the INCI.
  • The first ones are the ones that count. The cosmetic industry want to keep their recipes secret.  This is understandable, because otherwise people like me could go and make an exact copyof their products. But unfortunately this also means that they don’t have to write out the exact percentage of each ingredient. Still they have to arrange the INCI in order of quantity. So the first ingredients are the ones that you should be most careful about, since the product mainly is composed by them. Normally the first 2-8 ingredients are the big ones, while the rest are just included in very small quantities, although this of course varies a lot depending on the product.
  • cones and ols. Even though an ingredient as such might tell you nothing, sometimes part of the word might give you a hint as to what it is. For example, something ending with -cone is a silicone, that is mostly used in hair products and generally considered something to avoid amongst . If something is “hydrolized”, it is in many cases a protein, and ingredients ending with -ol can be alcohols.
  • American/european style. When an american product includes natural extracts, they have to write out the common English name as well, as you can see above [simonensia chinese (jojoba seed) oil]. This makes it a bit easier, and one will understand that Butyrospermum Parkii (shea butter) not necessarily is a bad thing.
  • FGI. When you have a list of ingredients (most can be found by googling), you can look them up to see what is said about them and try to form an opinion about whether they’re safe to use or not. Some sources I use are: “The truth about cosmetics” by Rita Stiens, the Good Guide and the Skin deep database.
  • “Loopholes” for the cosmetic companies. There are some things that make the reading of INCI lists more difficult. For one thing, ingredients included with less than 1% can be added in any order preferred. This means that if a product contains 0,0001% of a natural ingredient, say olive oil,  and 0,99% of say parabens, the olive oil can be noted before and the parabens after.
  • Also, since the cosmetic industry is so secretive, it is still allowed for the cosmetic companies to apply for some ingredients not to be mentioned in the INCI declaration. They will instead be substituted by a seven number code, or simply “and other ingredients”, which makes it more difficult, or downright impossible, to know what the product actually consists of, even though you’d make the effort to dig into the question.

 

Edited Monday 6.6.2011 with the help of Dene from Personal care truth.

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22 Comments

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    1. hilda

      Yes, I agree, that’s actually very bluntly said. But the length and difficulty of an INCI can really give a person (who knows nothing about chemistry, latin and make-up ingredients) an idea of whether the ingredient is naturally or chemically derived. I’m not saying all chemical ingredients in beauty products are bad, but it’s a good place to start from to know at least this distinction.

      Everyone uses loads of products with INCI’s in their daily life, but almost noone bothers even to look at it because it’s such an impossible djungle at first glance. What I tried to do in this article was open up the mystery a little bit to those who know nothing about it. I am not trying so much to grade the ingredients – I think the first step is to just understand the language of INCI. Then comes part two, knowing which ingredients are good and which ones are not.

      1. Dene

        It doesn’t matter what justification you might attempt, there is NO toxicological significance to the length of a chemical name, nor to the ease, or otherwise, of pronounciation. None whatsoever. If I gave the proper chemical name for glucose (without telling you it was glucose) you would freak out totally unnecessarily! Sorry, but whilst Anonymous Chemist may have been a little blunt, this truly is a nonsense. Have a look at:
        http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/12/if-you-cant-pronounce-it/
        for a slightly more detailed look at this silly claim.

      2. hilda

        While I do agree with you to a large extent, Dene, I still claim that this is a place to start from. I sincerely hope that no one “freaks out” because a name is difficult to pronounce, I myself certainly do not. My original idea with this post was simply to get people who wouldn’t bother looking at the INCI labels, to start doing so. Many people are very reluctant to look at the INCI labels because they don’t understand what it says. Even I, who have been very interested in these things for a few years, only recognize a very very small amount of the chemical names on the labels. That’s why I suggest that one should simply by products with ingredients that one recognizes. And if one is interested one can start looking into the properties of the ones that can’t be pronounced. I know this is definitely not the best way to go about, but since no one who doesn’t do it for a living could possibly memorize all ingredients and know which ones are good and which ones are bad, I think this is the best way to start to be sure that the products at least probably doesn’t do more harm than good.

      3. Dene

        I can’t seem to reply beneath your follow up comment, but no matter what you say, you are approaching this in far too simplistic a manner. You cannot determine what is “good” and what is “bad” in other than a highly subjective way. You use parabens as an example of “bad” – I say they are safe, and so does the EU’s experts on the SCCS. You say olive oil is “good”, yet UK dermatologists are discussing pushing for a ban in childrens’ products because it is a highly effective skin penetration enhancer. The reason for INCI listing is for people to be able to avoid known allergies – not for “safety” – the products are deemed to be safe, otherwise the manufacturer would NOT place them on the market.

      4. hilda

        Again, I agree with you that this is a very simplistic way of looking at it (which I also pointed out in my last comment) and indeed subjective. But that’s all I can do, as I am only an amateur and also approaching complete beginners. I kind of regret talking about parabens as bad, since I never actually saw them as particularly “bad” (my two cents on them here), they’re just an easy example in this case because many people look at them as bad ingredients. As for olive oil, hadn’t heard that but it sounds a bit weird.. I would assume that a skin penetration enhancer would be a good thing, providing the other ingredients are beneficial? Or maybe I misunderstood, should look into that.

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  3. Dene

    I realise that you are trying to give out useful information but you yourself admit that you are an amateur. The problem with this is that you may get things wrong (and there are several factual errors throughout this particular post) but your readers will mostly believe what you tell them. This is exactly how internet myths start. One poorly-conducted scientific study (using skin from rabbit ears) appeared to show that about 60% of the test substance was absorbed through the skin. The next thing we see is that up to 60% of ALL cosmetics are absorbed through skin and, even worse, EVERYTHING is absorbed through the skin. You have a responsibility to get things absolutely right if you are going to write blogs and, with respect, you HAVE made several mistakes – not just matters of opinion, but factual errors.

    Regarding the olive oil, cosmetics are NOT designed to deliberately penetrate the skin, and the transportation of other ingredients through skin by the olive oil can lead to undesirable effects, especially irritation. It is most certainly NOT a good thing, especially in small children.

  4. Dene

    Hilda, I have to say that I have a great respect for your willingenss to listen to others – it does you great credit, and is a rare thing indeed on beauty blogs!

    Factual errors:
    1) “Simply put, the more difficult the ingredients are to pronounce, the more likely they are to be bad” – no matter how much you water down this statement in later comments, it should never have been made in the first place as it has no basis in fact. I could offer dozens of examples of substances that are difficult to pronounce but are of extremely low toxicity, and as many again that are easy to pronounce but are highly toxic. You simply cannot make such a general statement – it is not true.

    2)”Normally the first 4-8 ingredients are the big ones, while the rest are just included in very small quantities”. This, again, is such a general comment and is totally vague. Many products only contain one or two major ingredients, many more have a gradual reduction in concentration over the first 15 (or more) ingredients.

    3) “For example, something ending with -cone, is a silicone, that is mostly used in hair products and generally considered something to avoid.” It is the latter part of this sentence that concerns me. Silicones are, as a group of substances, one of the most widely used groups of ingredients, and in the majority of the major brands, so to claim that they are generally considered something to avoid is an opinion, NOT a fact and, given the global (and popular) usage, not an opinion shared by most consumers.

    I will add a separate post as I suspect that there is a limit on space available per comment . . . .

  5. Dene

    4) “If it ends with -ol, it is an alcohol, if something is hydrolized, it is a protein and so on” – phenol is not an alcohol, it is a phenol – chemically distinct. Propylene glycol is a glycol, not an alcohol – similar, but not the same. Whilst many hydrolysed proteins ARE used, there are also many hydrolysed vegetable oils – not proteins.

    Not exactly factual errors, more just misrepresentations:

    1) “Some sources I use are: “The truth about cosmetics” by Rita Stiens, the Good Guide and the Skin deep database. ” In my experience, and book claiming to be writing the “facts” about cosmetics, usually draws on the same old misinformation that infests the internet, often it can be linked back to the Environmental Working Group who are behind Skin Deep. Skin Deep has a fatal flaw, and it is important that people are made aware of this:

    http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/05/skin-deep-scratching-below-the-surface/
    Whilst it may be my personal opinion that these books are not very accurate, it is a fact that Skin Deep doesn’t work.

    2)”Loopholes for the cosmetic companies. There are some things that make the reading of INCI lists more difficult. For one thing, Ingredients included with less than 1% can be added in any order preferred. This means that if a product contains 0,0001% of a natural ingredient, say olive oil, and 0,99% of a bad ingredient, say parabens, the olive oil can be noted before and the parabens after.”
    Why is this a “loophole”? The ingredients are still listed, and there is no way of knowing where the 1% cutoff occurs. The use of “loophole” makes it sound as though the manufacturers are somehow being sneaky and getting around the regulations. The 1% “loophole” has no bearing whatsoever on safety.

    3) “Also, since the cosmetic industry is so secretive, it is still allowed for the cosmetic companies to apply for some ingredients not to be mentioned in the INCI declaration”. It could be argued that the consumer would no better off knowing the identity of these “secret ingredients” because, as you have made clear, it is virtually impossible to understand the names of the ingredients! As long as the ingredient is safe, what is the issue? It is impossible to rationalise the desire to know the names of all of the ingredients with the lack of ability to understand what the names actually mean.

    1. hilda

      Wow, thank you so much for taking the time to go through my text! I will have a look at it when I have the time and change reformulate where necessary. I of course do not wish to spread the wrong information.

      1. Dene

        And thank you also, Hilda, for taking the time to consider my comments. I share your desire to avoid spreading the wrong information, and that includes having my own comments amended, if shown to be wrong.

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