We don't intend to give you a sermon, but we do want to share some "digestible" information to make it easier for you to understand what your skin care products contain.
How to read the formula of a cosmetic. What is INCI and what does it determine?
INCI stands for International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient and represents the list of all the ingredients that are in a cosmetic product's formula, described according to the international common name and arranged in decreasing order based on their concentration.
If an ingredient is very low in the INCI, does it imply that its concentration is too low to be effective? Well, this is not entirely true. Some ingredients are introduced into the formula in small proportions because they are highly concentrated. Others can be harmful in high concentration.;
We must not forget the principle of the Combined Effect, according to which the concentrations of active ingredients that reach our skin are the result of the combined application of several cosmetics used daily over a prolonged period. For this reason, the Regulatory and Scientific-Technical Committees of the Council of the European Union establish limit concentrations per type of ingredient to ensure that the application of the cosmetic is always safe.
What types of ingredients can we find in an INCI
Simplifying to the maximum, in a cosmetic product, we can find ingredients that provide a certain effect or benefit, others contribute to a particular sensory experience or texture, and others are essential for preserving the formula without degradation.
Here is a list of the main players in a cosmetic formula:
- ACTIVES:These are all the ingredients that contribute to the performance of the main function of the cosmetic product, or one of the functions when the product contains more than one active ingredient. Examples of actives include hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid (moisturizer), and ascorbic acid (antioxidant). It can happen that the same active ingredient provides more than one benefit, such as goji berries extract (Lycium Barbarum Fruit Extract) which is both an antioxidant and a dermo-stimulant.
- EMOLIENTS:substances that soften the skin, increase its moisture level, and help repair the lipid membrane. They contribute to preventing transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Some examples of emolients are jojoba oil (Simmondsia Chinensis Seed Oil), avocado oil (Persea Gratissima Oil) or coco-caprylate/caprate.
- HUMECTANTS: Used primarily to provide water to the skin.
- EMULSIFIERS: A type of molecule called surfactants that serve to mix two substances that are initially immiscible (e.g. water and oil), ensuring that the mixture remains stable.
- pH REGULATORS:Serve to adjust the pH and bring it closer to that of the skin. Between 4.5 and 6 for facial skin and 6.5 and 7 for the eye contour area. Citric acid lowers pH, while sodium hydroxide raises it.
- SOLVENTS AND THICKENERS:: Influence the consistency of the cosmetic, improving its application, appearance, and sensory experience. For example xanthan gum can increase viscosity while propanediol can reduce it; both are of natural origin.
- PRESERVATIVES: With antimicrobial activity, they serve to maintain the quality and guarantee the properties of the product throughout its shelf life. The most commonly used are organic acids and their salts, such as potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate.
- CHELATING AGENTS:: Neutralize metal ions in water-based and mineral-based formulations, allowing the product's life to be extended and keeping it stable (e.g.sodium phytate).
- COLORANTS:The colors of cosmetic products can be the direct result of natural ingredients used or artificially added; in this case, the cosmetic colorant is listed according to the International Color Index CI. For example, CI 19140 enhances the color yellow.
At the end of an INCI, you may find asterisks that often indicate specific properties of certain ingredients. This is the case for ingredients of ecological origin or allergens.
Now that we know the functions of the main components in a skincare formula, it will be easier for you to identify certain ingredients within these categories that would be better to avoid, even if their use is permitted in small concentrations. Keep in mind that we mention some of them but not all.
- SULFATES:such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These surfactants are common ingredients in foaming products like cleansers, shower gels, shampoos, etc. While sulfates are effective at breaking down grease in water, they can also be irritating and cause allergies, especially with continuous use.
- PHTHALATES: (DBP, DEHP, DEP, phthalate). These ingredients can be found in some synthetic fragrances. They can disrupt hormone levels and affect our endocrine system. Phthalates are banned in the European Union but are still allowed in countries like the United States.
- ETHANOLAMINE COMPOUNDS: (diethanolamine DEA, triethanolamine TEA, cocamide MEA). Amines are weak bases used to regulate the pH of formulas by neutralizing the acidic part. They also function as emulsifiers, surfactants, or thickeners. However, they can cause hormonal disorders, irritation, and allergic dermatitis. They are found in foaming personal care products like facial cleansers, liquid soaps, shampoos, etc.
PARABENS: (isobutylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben). Parabens are highly effective and commonly used preservatives in skincare products. Their use is permitted due to their limited concentration in formulas. However, the cumulative effect of using multiple cosmetics may not be taken into account, resulting in a higher overall concentration.
- BUTYLATED COMPOUNDS: (BHA butylated hydroxyanisole and BHT butylated hydroxytoluene). These synthetic antioxidants are commonly used to preserve cosmetic products and prevent fat oxidation or color alteration. They can act as endocrine disruptors.
- ETHOXYLATED INGREDIENTS: (propylene glycol PPG and polyethylene glycol PEG, sodium laureth sulfate, ceteareth). These solvents can cause allergies, dermatitis, and eczema. They are found in shampoos, shower gels, creams, and sunscreens.
- PETROLEUM DERIVATIVES: (petrolatum, paraffin, etc.). These ingredients are present in many cosmetic products, from shower gels to creams and oils. They create a greasy layer on the skin that hinders perspiration and optimal functioning of tissue cells.
Here are some specific reflections on controversial ingredients:
- SILICONES: (cyclomethicone, dimethicone, and ingredients that end in -siloxane). These are synthetic silicon-based compounds used to improve the sensory feel of products. They do not pose any health problems. They do not have any real benefits for the skin and are only used to smooth it or optically fill in wrinkles with a camouflage effect. From an ecological point of view, they are not very biodegradable and can lead to bioaccumulation in aquatic organisms.
- NANOPARTICLES: As the name suggests, these are ingredients in the form of very small particles used to improve the application of a cosmetic product, from a moisturizing cream to a sunscreen. There is not enough data to confirm whether they have side effects on health and the environment, but there are certain doubts. However, brands must mention the term [NANO] in the INCI and demonstrate that their products with nanomaterials are safe.
FRAGRANCES: We mentioned that the ingredients that make up a perfume formula cannot be known in detail because it is protected by law. Therefore, we enter a territory of uncertainty because a synthetic fragrance can contain up to 100 different ingredients.
The natural fragrances are not exempt from controversy. It is true that the essential oils contained in natural perfumes have multiple properties, but since they contain allergens, they could potentially cause allergies. The advantage in this case is that the allergens are listed in the INCI, allowing us to perform prior control.
With all these guidelines, you now have some additional tools to analyze the INCI of your favorite cosmetic products.
If you want to delve deeper into this topic, you can go to our product page and by clicking on each INCI ingredient, you will obtain all the information related to it.
For example, you can access the details of the formula of our Velvet Hibiscus Eye Serum. This is a concentrated antioxidant treatment with an ultra-light texture that combats signs of aging and fatigue around the eyes. This eye serum will help you regain a fresh and luminous look while contributing to a beautiful cause.