Deciphering the ingredients list on a cosmetic can be very useful. It can help you:
Today, most countries have legislation in place that requires manufacturers to include an ingredients list somewhere on their cosmetic products. Although the legislation differs between countries, generally speaking the requirement is to list the ingredients clearly and legibly in descending order of quantity. There are variations to this general rule in the different jurisdictions including:
Despite the general similarities in ingredients list labeling, there are some differences between regulatory jurisdictions that you should be aware of if you are purchasing cosmetic online, by mail order, or on holiday.
Unlike a therapeutic good (drug), a cosmetic is not one active ingredient in a base, but rather a complex formulation of numerous substances contributing to an overall effect. When trying to determine what is in a cosmetic you face a number of problems:
Like all things, reading ingredients lists gets easier with practice; start with products you use regularly. In order to determine the function of a cosmetic ingredient you are going to need a good reference source such as Winter’s “A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients” or search online. Fortunately, the introduction of the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) means that most of the more chemical sounding ingredients are listed have been standardised. There are a number of places online where you can get INCI lists of the more common cosmetic ingredients along with their function. A good place to start would be www.cosmeticINFO.org, a site maintained by the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) – formerly the Cosmetic, Toiletries and Fragrance Association (CFTA).
Even with these sources at hand, it can be hard to make sense of all the ingredients listed in a cosmetic. One process that might help is to classify each ingredient according to function. By doing this you can see how the product ‘works’, as well as understand which ingredients form the active part of the product (e.g., moisturisers, emollients) or are part of the over-all formulation (e.g., preservatives, anticaking agents, emulsifying agents).
Cosmetic Active Ingredients: these ingredients are necessary if the product is to do its job. For example, skin care products generally contain an emollient to make the skin feel smooth and soft. The emollient would be cosmetic active ingredient.
Assist the Cosmetic Active Ingredients: these ingredients are necessary if the product is to work properly. They include:
- solvents used to dissolve the active ingredients;
- binding agents such as gums, fats, or waxes which hold the product together;
- foaming agents;
- chelating agents which remove unwanted metals that can cause product spoilage;
- surfactants and emulsion stabilisers which stop oils/fats and water from separating;
- texturisers which help the product feel right;
- thickeners which stiffen a thin product thereby making it appear richer;
- plasticisers which keep a product flexible and stop it from cracking;
- film formers which help a product form a thin film;
- colours which make products look more appealing. Some colours are also regarded as opacifiers – these make the product less translucent or give it a pearlescence;
- fragrance which is used to disguise the smell or taste of some ingredients and/or to make the product more appealing;
- antioxidants to help stop colour changes in the product and prevent it from going rancid; and
- preservatives which inhibit the growth of microbes (bacteria and fungi).
It is also worth remembering that things at the front of an ingredients list make up a higher proportion of the product than ingredients at the end of the list.
Ingredient lists of skin care products are of particular interest, due to their ‘anti-ageing’ and moisturising claims. These claims are sometimes associated with a strange sounding ingredients often using made up names. Needless to say it is hard to estimate their effectiveness without knowing what they are.
Some things to think about when looking at the ingredients and advertising claims of skin care products are:
One of the main reasons you might be interested in what is in your cosmetics contain is to help you determine how safe they are. The web contains a number of sites listing ‘dangerous cosmetic ingredients’ that are supposed be avoided.
Although we know relatively little scientifically about the long-term effects of many cosmetic ingredients, this should not make you think cosmetics are inherently unsafe. Trade organisations such as the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), formerly the Cosmetic, Toiletries and Fragrance Association (CFTA) have a vested interest in ensuring that ingredients are safe, if only to avoid being more heavily regulated. Statistics show that cosmetics are one of the safest products you can buy, as long as you purchase them from a jurisdiction with appropriate regulations and trade associations in place – something to think about when you are purchasing products online.
Updated: 23rd January 2015
Winter R. (2005). A Consumers dictionary of cosmetic ingredients (6th. ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press.