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INCI Lists: Examining the ‘Turn-and-Learn’ mindset.

October 11, 2021

As much as I’m fascinated by cosmetic chemistry and the beauty industry I’m not really one for seeking out said content anywhere I can find it. I don’t tend to watch other creators YouTube chanels, read their blogs, hang around their schools or follow them on Instagram. I mostly read science papers and old-fashioned books (the ones with the pages that smell of libraries). If you are starting to think this may be because I look down on those ‘peasants’ that’s not true, well not entirely…

Sure, I do sometimes see and read things that leave me struggling not to bang my head against the wall and occasionnally I’m compelled to channel that energy into something constructive such as a blog article. On that, there have been times when my tone has been more ‘look here people, you are just wrong’ than it should have been but by far the most dominant thoughts and feelings that drive me are coming from a place of ‘I can see why you think that but I wish to draw your attention to this’…

Yes I’m definitely becoming more calm-blue-ocean as I age, but only time will tell if that’s because a) I’m all out of adrenaline and can no longer be bothered to fight or b) because I’ve ‘seen the light and it’s beautiful’.

With that in mind I want to talk to you about a promising young woman I’ve seen on YouTube called “Cassandra Bankston”.

I don’t know how I first came across Cassandra but I did and her words have been going around in my head like an ear worm for months now.

The early Cassandra tapes I saw were laid out as her providing ‘expert’ commentary on celebrity skincare regimen videos – a sort of video-in-video dissection service. As an aside, this style of content is something I enjoy and regularly watch Mama Doctor Jones do the same thing for ObGyno content. I put the word expert in commas in relation to Cassandra as while I don’t doubt she has suitable and even extensive qualifications I am not sure they run across all the topics she covers (Dermatology, Cosmetic Chemistry, Cosmetic R&D and Legislation, Beautician, Aesthetician etc).

It was interesting watching celebrities describe their skin type as they understood it (and some did seem very well educated in that regard) before explaining, often in great detail why they use and like the products featured. Most had clearly thought through their skin care routine in great detail – unsurprising given most make money from their looks – but this felt much deeper and more intimate than superficial and transactional.

In each video Cassandra put the celebrity on pause then shared her thoughts around what whas being said and done. It was all very interesting, a delayed call-and-response routine served up as a spicy dish of education, intuition, self-knowledge, pseudoscience, (potential) sponsorship or financial interest, opinion, best-guess, vulnerability and enjoyment. It all felt like harmless fun until I came away and couldn’t stop hearing these three words ‘turn and learn’. Noooooooooooooooo.

INCI Lists – The Turn and Learn Mindset.

Firstly yes, I do acknowledge the power of a good one-liner, saying or headline and secondly, I appreciate these things are often the tip of a much bigger iceberg and so we should always dig deeper before drawing any conclusions.

Cassandra uses the phrase ‘turn and learn’ not only to focus viewers attention to the back rather than front of the cosmetic product packaging (where the INCI list is) but to emphasise this as the most valuable information available to the general public. In the embedded video Cassandra explicitly advises people to completely ignore the front of the pack (which is something I didn’t know she had said when I first saw her videos). The idea is that once you have educated yourself on how to read and interpret the INCI list you can focus on that and in doing so avoid getting sucked in by sales consultants and marketing; avoid buying rubbish products; products that are not right for your skin and those that might irritate.

I use the ‘turn and learn’ strategy in both my personal and professional life. I have allergic reactions to a couple of ingredients and always check the INCI for them. I also check the INCI to get a feel for how the product has been put together (formulated) and I can gain some but not all insight into that from the ingredient list. On that last point, it’s worth noting that having formulated cosmetics for 23 years I have earned a level of insight that’s not normal.

What I find concerning.

The message that ABOVE ALL ELSE, it’s a products INCI list that tells us the most and uncovers its worth.

This is not just an over-simplification, it’s a complete dismissal of cosmetic science!

The cult of the ingredient.

These days, not a week goes by without an email that goes something like this:

‘Hi there, I’ve been doing some research and I want to formulate a cream for my clients. I know the ingredients I want in it (goes on to give me a list) and just need you to tell me how much of each I need for this to work’.

I NEVER used to get emails like this before social media and share-all edutainment became such a thing.

Emails like this show me a significant number of people who would otherwise be interested in cosmetic science think a ‘good’ cosmetic is just one that contains some well-known or cutting edge ‘good’ ingredients – the rest is just minor tick-the-box stuff you can cut-and-paste on. It’s like once you’ve identified and read all there is to read about the ingredients, you’ve done the hard yards and have hacked the skin science genome!

I don’t blame Cassandra for this, I doubt it’s something she’s even considered. She came way after the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ campaign and they came after the whole ‘did you know, there’s SLS in the cleaning products they use in industrial car garages?’ faxes. There’s simply not a person alive who is powerful enough to change the collective mindset with one phrase or message. This, my friends, is an example of a slippery slope – an example of how cute little somethings, simple catch phrases and call-outs build on each other. They are like those single rogue hairs that fall out and land in your bathroom plug hole. Before you know it you’ve got a hair-berg blocking your plumbing and you had no idea how that could even possible!

Beyond INCI – Realizing the Intangible

It’s often easier to describe what something is not rather than what it is because you don’t have to understand a things essence to achieve a compelling ‘free from’ style analysis.

Cosmetic Science IS based on chemistry but being a great chemist doesn’t automatically guarantee you’ll make great formulations. Following best scientific practice is fundamental to cosmetic science success, but scientific precision alone doesn’t win hearts and minds. What about art? Cosmetic Science is artistic in the way it captures our imaginations and feeds our hopes and dreams! But again no, rely entirely on art and all you’ll get is a hot mess, broken dreams and a law suit…

When asked to describe what Cosmetic Science is in my classes I answer that it’s a relationship-building process, that it’s something we do and something we must apply!

Feeling this may still be a little too abstract I’ve sat here all day trying to come up with a cozy acronym that sums up what I feel cosmetic science is. I’ve persisted mainly because if I’m going to sit here whinging that the INCI list isn’t everything I’ve got to make visible this invisible ‘extra’ stuff – the special sauce. Doing this has really given me a numb bum so I do hope it’s useful. I ended up creating an acronym around my blog name ‘Realize Beauty’ which was definitely not my first choice and is at risk of coming across as corny but having brain stormed what cosmetic science meant to me this was the only remotely industry-linked word pairing I could muster and it sort of works.

In true me style, it’s not as concise as I’d like but it’s done:

The End Part

I once heard that art should make you feel something and it doesn’t matter if those feelings aren’t all good. I find myself in agreement with that and do see Cassandra’s work as art -she’s very good at what she does, I could never be as polished and professional sounding / looking as her and I really love that about her content and personality! There’s just something incongruous about this INCI situation which I don’t feel is at all intentional.

I’ve ended up being surprised by how much time I’ve invested into thinking about this ‘turn and learn’ situation. I’d not realised just how much each layer of a cosmetic product means to me and how much each layer contains its own opportunities and delivers value.

When I step back and look at a cosmetic product I see it as a symphony, something that’s complex, layered, alive and changeable rather than the one-dimensional and static. Something that starts in your imagination before guiding you towards a safe and helpful reality where the likelihood of you experiencing something good and worthwhile is heightened! Something that responds to the way it is moved, packaged, applied and then removed. Something that responds similarly but differently to you vs me because we are unique. A product-shaped relationship-building opportunity and one that is meaningful inspite of it being one that others might not fully appreciate or understand. If cosmetic science was just INCI list and fancy packaging there’s no way I’d be able to keep doing it.

So that’s it but before I go I want to make it crystal clear that I am not arguing against the usefulness of the INCI list and the insight that learning how to read and interpret them provides. Neither am I advising against watching Cassandra’s video’s or questioning her credentials. We all have blind spots (me included of course) and there’s no shame in that.

What I am trying to do is remind both myself and you out there that INCI lists are something not everything. A word of possibility awaits those who can see past the cult of the ingredient.

Amanda x

PS: Check out my next article where I share what I’ve done to make what I’m talking about visual. The article will be called ‘one INCI list, four serums’ and it’s ready now.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. jjsj1705 permalink
    October 11, 2021 7:53 pm

    Really appreciate this article, Amanda.
    Hair-berg made me laugh out!
    As someone who tends to enjoy a broad range of headlines (often jumping from one concept to another without scientific inquiry), I am in awe of those with the passion and capacity to go deeper. I am lucky to have business partners and a husband who focus on understanding the truth and fossicking for first principles but it’s still useful to be reminded of the importance of this approach by experienced professionals in our industry.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. October 12, 2021 12:04 am

    “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”
    ― Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      October 12, 2021 6:54 am

      Wow, yes! Indeed we have and what a disaster that’s becoming. Thank you for that

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