How to read a cosmetic ingredient list

Paying close attention to the ingredients in skincare products is always a wise idea. A recent study showed that an average adult uses 9 cosmetic products every day, and more than 25% of women use at least 15 products. Since a typical product contains 15-50 ingredients, you may well conclude that hundreds of chemicals end up on our skin just through our beauty routine. Moreover, cosmetic ingredients persist on the skin for weeks. So, how to figure out what is inside your cream?

INCI names for cosmetic ingredients

The full list of ingredients used in a cosmetic is printed by law on the product package.
At first glance, this list may sound intimidating, with seemingly obscure and confusing terms, since the ingredients are listed using their INCI name.
INCI stands for “International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients”, and it is a naming system established in the early 70s to assign unique and standardized names to cosmetic ingredients (INCI names). The use of INCI names for the labeling of cosmetic ingredients is mandatory in the EU, USA, China, Japan, Canada, and many other countries.

So, why those arcane INCI names?

Although it may seem overly-complicated, the use of INCI names identifies raw materials in cosmetics, thus ensuring maximum transparency and safety.
Transparency because each of these ingredients is uniquely identified and safety as doctors and dermatologists can always detect the agents of possible adverse reactions without errors or loss of relevant information.

A useful thing to know is that ingredients are always listed from the highest to the lowest concentration. In cosmetics usually, the first position is taken by water -INCI name Aqua– which can be as much as 60%-85% of a cream. The last ingredients on the list have a concentration of a few percents or less.
This doesn’t mean that only the top five ingredients or so are relevant, and all others are there just for marketing. Many active components in cosmetic formulas are very effective, even at extremely low concentrations. They are consequently placed at or near the bottom of the INCI list.

INCI names for plant ingredients

In the INCI lists, plants, flowers, and algae are easily found. Their INCI names are formed by two scientific names -often of Latin origin- and are based on the binomial Linnaean system, followed by the part of the plant used and whether it is an extract, oil, or powder.

Here some examples, (actual ingredients in Organica100 Tonifying Cream):

Malus Domestica fruit water is our intracellular apple water
Prunus armeniaca kernel oil is apricot kernel oil
Anthemis nobilis flower extract is chamomile-extract
Leontopodium alpinum extract is edelweiss extract

So far so good, and Latin makes it sound like wizardry (which Organica100 skincare actually is, if you ask us), but what about those other names who seem to come straight out of a Chemistry class nightmare? Well, the truth is that they may sound intimidating, but this does not mean that they are dangerous, artificial, or harmful: one example for all is tocopherol, the INCI name for vitamin E.

Sounds much clearer now, doesn’t it?


The fact that an ingredient has an INCI name and is present in a database of ingredients for cosmetics does not imply that its usage is always allowed in cosmetics. Note that regulations change from country to country. European countries ban hundreds of ingredients legally allowed in the US. In the EU and Switzerland, where the level of safety is comparable, ingredients contained in cosmetic products must not constitute a health hazard, nor must they pose a risk due to concentrations as defined and continuously updated by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS).
To be placed on the market, local products such as Organica100 must comply with strict guidelines concerning the health of consumers of all age groups.

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