Are skincare labels lying to you?

It might seem like the small print has the answers you need – but it might not be that simple

By Rhea Cartwright

30 April 2021

e may have been taught to never judge a book by its cover, but in the beauty world, the fascination with reading product ingredient lists may actually be detrimental. Knowledge is power and the ever-increasing transparency of beauty content is allowing consumers to make better-informed buying decisions, but it’s crucial to remember that the ingredient lists aren’t as clear as they seem.

Although brands are all too keen to volunteer which supposed “nasties” their products are free from, all beauty products are also legally required to print their ingredients on the packaging. Savvy shoppers peruse these lists looking for the best in show, but the ingredients list doesn’t reveal the true story.

What Is An INCI list?

Pronounced “inky”, INCI stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients and is the list of agreed names used in the ingredient list on beauty products. The INCI name for a given ingredient may often be the scientific name, or the Latin name for plant-derived ingredients. For example, sunflower oil will be written as Helianthus Annuus Seed Oil.

Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, but for anything present at levels below 1 per cent, the order is meaningless. The widely used preservative Phenoxyethanol is used at a maximum of 1 per cent and is often the marker in the list for ingredients listed after it being less than a 1 per cent concentration.

What The INCI list Doesn’t Tell You

Knowing what’s in your products can often be indicative of whether a product is suitable for you, particularly for those with known allergies and sensitivities. However, the INCI list doesn’t reveal the most crucial part – the formulation. “It's merely a list of ingredients that were used to create the product; it doesn't tell you anything about what happens to those ingredients during processing or the “'recipe” to make the final end product,” says skin expert and advanced facialist Andy Millward. “The formulation is king and takes precedence over any single ingredient within a formulation. A lot more goes into the finished product than just the ingredients list.”

The source and the quality of ingredients also aren’t listed, which makes a big difference to the overall potency and efficiency of products. Popular oils such as coconut, olive or rosehip, for example, are extracted by using a press to squeeze the oil out of the ingredient itself. The first big squeeze, and also the most expensive to purchase, is often said to contain the largest amount of phytochemicals, with subsequent presses containing far fewer.

The ingredients list also doesn’t reveal whether the raw material has been processed or refined to alter it chemically or to neutralise the natural scent. These issues can affect the brands and formulators as much as the consumers, as they often don’t know the exact origin of their ingredients unless they have grown them in their own gardens, or have trusted and transparent relationships with their suppliers.

Why relying on the INCI list can be problematic

According to Millward, you could have two products with an identical ingredient list that vary hugely in terms of result. “Similar to following a cooking recipe, it’s not as simple as mixing them all up in a bowl and giving them a stir,” he says, noting that the machinery used also plays a pivotal role, in the same way that the type of oven you have will affect the baking of a cake.

With huge amounts of beauty information more accessible than ever before, people are often avoiding products based on the inclusion of a single ingredient and where it sits on the list. Lactic acid, for example, known for its glow-inducing exfoliating properties, is also found in minimal trace amounts very low on the list as it also works as a preservative. Trouble arises when consumers assume that because it’s at a minimal concentration, it’s not doing its job properly, when in reality, the function in that particular formulation may be something different altogether.

Millward’s advice is to take the ingredients list with a proverbial pinch of salt. “Unless you have an allergy and are choosing to avoid specific ingredients, look at how the product functions as a whole rather than the individual components.”

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