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Unlocking Skincare Labels : Essential Guide and Tools to Decode INCI Lists for Smarter Beauty Choices

by Shopify API

The truth about cosmetics: Identifying harmful ingredients in INCI lists

Navigating Skincare: Understanding INCI Lists

Grab the nearest packaged skincare product.

Now read the ingredients aloud. To anyone in earshot, it probably sounds like you're learning a new language. Don't get down on yourself, the only people who can actually pronounce those ingredients with ease are the scientists who invented them.

Chances are your product has a dose of water, oil and preservatives. Not sure what it means ?

This article is all about breaking down those tricky INCI lists and organic certifications, plus spotting when 'natural' isn't really natural.

We're also going to share some useful app which help decoding complex INCI lists – Because let's face it, labels can be a real headache to decode if you're not a cosmetic expert or formulator. 

We will also share insights from our experience as a manufacturer. Interestingly, some applications do not require any payment or documentation like invoices to register your products.... they even ask you to pay to feature your products. 

By the end, you'll know how to avoid bad ingredients, pick the right skincare, and our 2 favorite apps. 

  • What does INCI means and how it works
  • Understanding cosmetic ingredient labels
  • Identifying harmful ingredients in INCI lists
  • INCI Decoder
  • INCI Beauty : the French app
  • EWG, The Good Face project, Think Dirty
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French organic certified skincare
Organic plum Kernel oil serum

Understanding cosmetic ingredient labels (aka INCI list)

The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) list, established in 1973 by the American Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA), is a standardized system for naming cosmetic ingredients.

In Europe, it's been mandatory since 1998 for manufacturers to list all ingredients on product packaging, in descending order of concentration.

The scientific names are consistent across countries in the European Union. For instance, plant extracts are listed in Latin (e.g., "Simmondsia chinensis oil" for virgin Jojoba oil), while molecule names and common names are in English (e.g., "zinc oxide" for Zinc Oxide, "honey" for Honey).

Pros of the INCI System

The INCI system plays a crucial role in the cosmetic industry by getting a standardization accross every contries. That's easy. Now how to read, is another story !

Transparency in Ingredients: The INCI system requires that all ingredients in a cosmetic product be listed on the packaging. This transparency allows consumers to know exactly what is in the products they are using. It can also help identifying potential allergens.

Standardization Across Countries: INCI provides a standardized language for ingredients, regardless of where the product is made or sold. This means that the same ingredient will be listed under the same name in the USA, Europe, Japan, and other regions, making it easier for international consumers to understand product formulations. 

Cons

Now, keep reading, because this is where it becomes truly interesting.

Under the same name, you can find ingredients of different origins or even varying qualities. Take, for example, caprylic-capric triglyceride. This oil, an emollient, deeply nourishes and is often used as a substitute for petroleum-derived ingredients.

At Elodie's Naturals, we choose to use this ingredient derived from coconut-based plants. However, some suppliers offer it from palm oil, which may or may not be sustainable. Naturally, the sustainable option comes at a higher cost (20% more). So, what happens?

- Large corporations tend to opt for the less expensive palm oil source, while brands that truly care go for either RSPO-certified palm oil or, even better, coconut oil. 

- Now, the question arises: how is a consumer supposed to know this? It is impossible!

Here a few others examples:

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1

Complexity of Names

The scientific names in INCI lists can be challenging to comprehend, even for formulators. Interestingly, ingredients with the same names on INCI lists can come from diverse sources, which adds layers of complexity. Can you imagine for a consumer ?

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2

Doesn’t Indicate Ingredient Quality

The INCI list won’t tell you about the quality or sourcing of the ingredients (e.g., whether an oil is cold-pressed or refined). 

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3

Lack of Quantitative Information

INCI lists do not provide the concentration of each ingredient, which can be important in determining the product's effectiveness.

Some examples to further illustrate the complexity of INCI lists

Understanding INCI Lists

Alcohol in Different Forms:
The uggly and the good ones

Although the term 'alcohol' often brings to mind drying substances like ethanol that can be drying the skin, did you know there are in fact beneficial types of alcohol? These are known as 'fatty alcohols,' such as cetyl alcohol and its cousin cetearyl alcohol, which are actually moisturizing. They are often used as 'waxes' or texturing agents.

These types of alcohols can actually be beneficial for dry skin due to their ability to lock in moisture. So, when you see cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol listed in the ingredients of a skincare product, they're serving a beneficial and non-drying purpose. You can find some in Elodie's Naturals rejuvenating face plum lotion. 

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Fragrance and its ambiguity
You said natural?

A fragrance can contain a surprising number of ingredients. It's not uncommon for a fragrance to contain between 50 to 100 different ingredients, and in some complex cases, a fragrance might even include over 200 different components.  

While natural fragrances exist, they're less common in the U.S. market, mainly due to their higher cost—natural fragrances can range from $80 to $400 per liter, compared to $30 to $60 for synthetic ones. 
Additionally, natural fragrances tend to fade more rapidly than their synthetic alternatives. However, in France, they are commonly used for their natural properties and to comply with the COSMOS regulations (=European certification product needs to be at least 90% natural and 10% organic). 

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Oils: their origins matter
Organic, natural and petroleum-derived

When it comes to the carrier oils we use in lotion or moisturizing serum, their origins can make a world of difference. Just like you wouldn’t cook with petroleum oil, the same level of consideration should apply to the oils in your face serum or body products.

Organic oils, sourced from sustainably-grown plants, are not only kinder to the planet but also richer in beneficial nutrients for your skin. They are free from harsh chemicals, richer in nutrients, and often cold-pressed, just like organic squeezing fresh fruits. Inci won't tell you the origin of the oils, but you can check on the website of the brand. 

Elodie's Naturals oils, like Plum oil, or Jojoba Serum used in Radiance face serums along with Q10 are all organic certified in Europe. 

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The first 4 to 5 ingredient
represents 80% of the formulation

Ever looked at an INCI list and seen something like 'aqua, glycerin' at the top? Here’s a fun fact: that product might actually be 90% water and just 5% glycerin. Surprised? It's easy to assume that the second ingredient would make up a large part of the mix. But here's the deal: INCI lists are all about the order, not the exact amounts. They're relative, not absolute. So, when you're scanning those lists, remember that the order gives you a clue about what's in there, but not how much of it is actually used.

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Hyaluronic Acid
a good example

Let's talk about Hyaluronic Acid – a superstar in skincare. You'll often find it towards the bottom of an INCI list, with a recommended concentration between just 0.1% and 0.5%. But don’t let its position fool you! Even at these small amounts, hyaluronic acid works wonders for hydration and giving your skin that plump, moisturized feel. Plus, a little goes a long way, which is good because it's actually  a pricey ingredient. This is a classic case where more isn't always better, something you might not realize just by scanning the INCI list. 

Elodie's Naturals Hyaluronic Acid Serum contains the maximum allowable concentration of 0.5% hyaluronic acid and 5% organic cucumber.

Understanding INCI Lists

Green washing
Marketing misleading

As we just said, INCI does not give you the exact quantity of the ingredients, but also their origin (eg: some ingredients are genetically modified GMOs), or their mode of production (for example, between a cold-pressed vegetable oil and a refined vegetable oil).

When assessing a serum with a 15% vitamin C concentration, it's crucial to consider that valid comparisons should focus on products featuring both the same concentration and the identical source of the active ingredient.  Otherwise, it's akin to comparing apples to oranges.

What are the best app to check the safety of your cleansing balm, your serum, face cream in your bathroom ? 

Europe has stricter regulations regarding cosmetic ingredients, with a more proactive approach to banning and restricting harmful substances in beauty products. So, it's really straightforward when it comes to skincare. Everything's regulated, so you don't have to worry too much about finding a green program or looking for "made-safe" stamps of approval. They simply don't exist. Easy, peasy.

That being said, there is a certification that we follow called COSMOS certification – it's pretty much the gold standard. Some brands go all out to obtain it, while others may follow the guidelines without officially getting certified. And then you've got the big names, like Clinique and Clarins, who don't bother with it because they're not really in the natural skincare game.

In the U.S., there has historically been more self-regulation in the cosmetics industry. However, with the Modernization of Cosmetic Regulation Act, the U.S. is beginning to adopt a regulatory approach more similar to Europe's, meaning U.S. apps may start providing more detailed safety information. But let's be clear, it's moving in a better direction, but still, there is a very big gap compared to Europe. Even an ocean!

 That's another reason why there are so many different programs or apps in the U.S. While you might find just 2 apps in France, the U.S. market is flooded with over 10, including "clean beauty programs," "made safe certified," or "INCI Decoded."

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The most populars apps are not the best

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THINK DIRTY
CANADIAN APP
 

Brands that meet Think Dirty's criteria for non-toxicity and sustainability might pay for enhanced visibility or promotional opportunities within the app, such as featured listings, advertisements, or sponsored content. Only brands making already a few hundred of thousands of dollars can really be promoting. 

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EWG's Healthy Living App
AMERICAN APP

EWG is a well known non-profit located in Washington DC. They review each product (not a machine) and they accept any brands. The app is free for brands. At Elodie's Naturals, we are still waiting to hear back (we submitted our products January 4,2024). 

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YUKA
FRENCH APP

Previously popular in France, they've recently entered the US market. Similar to Think Dirty, their business model focuses on profit, meaning they primarily promote brands that can afford to spend significant amounts on marketing ads, not necessarily those that are doing good.

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INCI DECODER 
EUROPEAN APP
+++  OUR FAVORITE #1

This app was the easiest and simplest way for us to add our products. It doesn't offer rankings, but it does explain each ingredient, which we think is better.  If you're looking to understand the function of each ingredient, this is also a good approach

Here a link to our products

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INCI BEAUTY
FRENCH APP
+++ OUR FAVORITE #2

This is the only company that requested our invoice for fragrances. Why? Because we claim our fresh fragrance is 100% natural, so they wanted to check and obtained our certification. This verification process is free for a brand.

The only downside is, if you download the app, an ad pops up. 

INCI don't tell really tell you the whole story

Quality Matters: Remember that the quality of an ingredient is not indicated on INCI lists. For example, the benefits of an oil like jojoba can vary greatly depending on whether it's cold-pressed or refined​​.

Concentration is Key: The concentration of an ingredient makes a significant difference. A product might be 90% water with just a small percentage of the active ingredient, but this doesn't diminish its effectiveness. For instance, hyaluronic acid is an active ingredient even in small amounts​​.

Beware of Greenwashing: Marketing can be misleading. It's essential to compare products based on the same concentration and source of the active ingredient to make a valid comparison​​. Organic and Potent: When choosing skincare products, consider those with ingredients sourced from organic farming. These are often more potent, nutrient-rich, and contain fewer irritants, making them a better choice for your any skin​​ types, especially sensitives ones. 

Less is more

In conclusion, using an app to help read a label is certainly a good start. Because results can vary from one app to another, we recommend using two different apps to aid in making a more informed decision.

An easy approach is also to embrace the "less is more" philosophy by selecting skincare products with a minimal list of ingredients, which is the most direct path to ensuring safety and effectiveness.

This approach doesn't mean sacrificing quality; on the contrary, it often boosts the product's performance by emphasizing the purity and potency of each ingredient.

By prioritizing organic formulations that are simple yet powerful, you're investing in the health and beauty of your skin without the unnecessary additives or synthetics ingredients.

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