How to Read a Cosmetic Ingredient List
By law, skincare products have to include comprehensive ingredient lists. But how do you read one? What are the important factors to look out for when you do? And are there any exceptions? Cracking these questions can be a bit more of an undertaking, but we’ve got you covered. Let’s start with some definitions and basics of how to read cosmetic ingredient list.
The Basics of Cosmetic Ingredient Lists
When selecting new skincare products, checking the ingredient list should arguably be your first move, even before reading the description or claims. A better understanding of ingredient lists can make you a better skincare consumer, since you’ll be able to weed out products with low percentages of natural ingredients, spot allergens, have a better handle on the safety of products, and see through misleading marketing and names.
You may have also heard an ingredient list referred to as an INCI list, which stands for “international nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients” and is the system for listing ingredients by their scientific nomenclature. It’s a system that was first developed in the 1970s and has since been adopted for use in the European Union, China, Japan, and many other countries. With few exceptions, INCI labeling names are the same in every country.
In the cosmetics industry, ingredients are always listed in order of prominence. This means that the ingredients follow an order of highest percentage to lowest percentage. Typically, the first five or six ingredients in the list make up the majority of the product, and the following ingredients are used in comparatively small quantities.
So if a label proclaims it’s packed with natural ingredients, for example, scanning the order of ingredients can tell you if that’s true or if the ingredients being marketed are actually low on the list and therefore minimally present in the product.
However, one key note is that any ingredients present in concentrations of less than 1% can be listed in any order, as long as they follow all of the ingredients whose percentages are higher than 1%. So it’s important to realize that once you’re at the end of an ingredient list, the order of ingredients may no longer be following the highest-to-lowest model. If they’re not, it’s only because they’re present in very small quantities. The only exception to this rule is color additives, which can be listed after ingredients of 1% or less, regardless of their quantity in the product. Also please note that while many ingredients aren’t effective in amounts less than 1%, many are and provide great benefits at this level.
Doing the Math: Bundled Ingredients
Another rule of cosmetic ingredient listing is that blended ingredients can’t be listed as a single, combined ingredient. Each component must be listed separately, and in the correct order based on their percentage of the whole. This often means some math has to be done, or information from the supplier has to be consulted to determine proper placement.
Here’s an example from our chief formulator, Laura, for a fake lip balm recipe:
40% Castor Jelly
20% Kokum Butter
10% Jojoba Oil
Anyone that isn’t a formulator will look at that and think the ingredient list should read: beeswax, castor jelly, kokum butter, jojoba oil. However, castor jelly is a bundle of two ingredients at different ratios (> 75% castor seed oil and < 25% hydrogenated castor oil) so the ingredient list would actually be: beeswax, castor seed oil, kokum butter, jojoba oil, hydrogenated castor oil.
A quick side note: some ingredients, including Emulsifying Wax, are accepted by the National Formulary (NF) as a single ingredient and can be listed that way, even though it’s actually composed of Cetearyl Alcohol and a derivative of a polysorbate.
All of this may absolutely be confusing at first, and deeper knowledge of ingredients (which comes from experience) will help you feel more comfortable with breaking down ingredient lists like these. You can always practice your ingredient list breakdown skills by starting with one of our product ingredient decks, like Barrier Balm or Virgin Coconut Sugar Scrub (both USDA Certified Organic).
No matter what, there’s never a bad time to start with the basics, even if you’re new to skincare. Glance over ingredient lists before you buy a product, check for irritants, and make sure you actually know a bit about the product you’re purchasing before you commit to using it on your skin.