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The movement towards a ‘clean’ INCI label for cosmetic products.

April 17, 2015

Since I started in the cosmetics industry 18 years ago we have always had to list all ingredients in our formulations.  I was very grateful of that in the early days as it made the process of completing my cosmetic formulating diploma much easier but in a strange twist of fate my life is no longer made easier by this information.  These days those people looking to enter the cosmetic industry are scrutinising ingredients listings, googling ingredient functions and looking for cleaner, purer and more REAL ingredients to pop into their products.  Well, at least that’s what they think they are doing……

There is a movement (it is clearly more than a passing trend) towards cosmetics that are made-up from ingredients that we can identify with – coconut oil, lime blossom extract, orange peel wax, radish root ferment and so on and so forth.  This sounds lovely and I have to admit to being more than a little sympathetic to this modus operandi – we want to trace ingredients back, we want to have a feeling for them, we want to see them grow and then rub them on our faces and into our hair – only I also know that there is a fair bit of smoke and mirror between the tree and the face. Sometimes.

See I am a chemist. I’m not the kind of  chemist that wants to rule the world (ruling my family might be nice. Just once…), blow things up, create drugs to make everything swirly and unicorny or kill fishes and bees but I’m still a chemist and as a chemist I see things in a particular way.  Maybe it’s how I’ve been conditioned by years of looking under the microscope and into beakers or maybe I was born this way – I like to think I came out nerdy. It’s easier that way.

When people ask for help creating formulations that contain nothing that sounds chemical what I hear is ‘I don’t understand the beauty and language of chemistry and so I’d rather avoid it altogether and just stick to big things that I can understand’.

These sort of clients would balk at using:

squalene > they would prefer Olive Oil.

Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride > coconut oil all the way.

Sorbitan Olivate >  ‘Errrrr does that grow on a tree?’ (An emulsifier that is derived from olive)

Glyceryl Stearate Citrate > ‘Is citrate from orange?’ (A non GMO corn derived emulsifier that can form a stable emulsion alone but is best used with a second emulsifier)

Sodium Levulinate and Sodium Anisate > ‘Excuse me?’ (this is an all natural preservative that is allowed in organic formulations here in Australia and complies to many other Eco Friendly certifications)

Phenethyl Alcohol > ‘Sounds nasty’ (is a preservative extracted from roses although it can also be synthetically derived. Suppliers specify the source).

or anything else sciency.

The thing that makes me a bit squirmy with this ingredient philosophy is that many of these newbie brand owners don’t really have any great understanding of how ingredients get to be named and what the name means.  This leads to people dismissing ingredients that will do the job quickly, efficiently and cheaply while leaning on a handful of nice sounding ingredients that may make formulating a lovely, safe and effective product near-on impossible.

Cosmetic ingredients are assigned INCI names and while the INCI names do have to be in line with what the ingredient is and where it comes from (see the INCI protocol here) there is some room for movement and ingredient manufacturers have cottoned on to that and will now focus much more on getting a good ‘clean’ INCI name to help sell their ingredients.  I think that is OK from a marketing perspective and definitely helps ‘tick the box’ of people wanting that sort of thing and it is also good that ingredient manufacturers are getting more creative and are exploring natural materials far more these days and coming up with increasingly natural solutions.  But at the end of the day what you are putting into your cosmetic product is still chemical.

My biggest dread in life is that we try to dumb everything down to the point of it becoming stupid and I just hope that cosmetic chemistry isn’t going that way.  Chemistry is not all bad and ingredients that have somewhat chemical sounding names are not all dirty, polluting horribleness.

A cream needs an emulsifier.

A product containing oil and water needs preserving.

Don’t let’s trade micro and physical stability for the sake of a clean label.

Amanda x




4 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa. permalink
    April 17, 2015 5:08 pm

    I’m not sure what’s worse – the dumbing down of ingredient names or labels that include correct inci names with bracketed “derived from”. Clearly it’s intended that the customer believe it was just a short step from the coconut (or whatever) to the actual ingredient. Misleading?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 17, 2015 5:51 pm

      Well I don’t think it matters so much for the ingredients like the squalene or whatever that are pretty much straight from the source but it is a stretch to say that something like Cocamidopropyl Betaine is from Coconuts or Palm I guess. I think that putting this sort of detail on a website is probably more appropriate as you can add more detail to the origin and avoid being misleading. That said many people know it’s misleading but do it because everyone else does.

      • April 18, 2015 1:16 am

        People also do it because that’s what a large segment of consumers buy (I guess). Or maybe not. It seems only small brands tend to flout the labeling rules. Perhaps it’s their way of making their brand stand out from the big guys. There are already rules against it so I don’t know what more can be done.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        April 18, 2015 7:53 am

        Absolutely and it is fine that people want clean labels, I like that too but feel we don’t need to do it at the expense of chemistry and science. Explaining the science behind these new wholesome sounding chemicals and the process they go through to get into the cosmetic manufacturing plant would be really helpful and would stop people thinking you can make safe products with just a few leaves, rainwater and a slab of beeswax 🙂

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