* An edited version of is article first appeared in Bath Life Magazine, the local magazine of my beautiful home city of Bath in the UK.
What do you notice first when you pick up a new skincare product?
Is it a beautifully designed logo or a catchy tag line? Maybe it’s the divine packaging that catches your attention?
Or do you go straight for the ingredients list instead? I never used to, but these days that's the first thing I look at - and I'm proudly geeky about it!
The Ingredients list is where all the really important information is, but sometimes it can just seem a bit impossible to decipher, especially when it includes a lot of seemingly semi-unpronounceable words.
What do these even mean and why does it have to be so complicated?
And what are we actually looking at?
The way the ingredients list on your product is structured and displayed is called the INCI, or INCI list, depending on how you prefer to use the word.
The INCI is what tells you just what makes your product special in terms of its ingredients. This is for example where you will find the active ingredients, the allergens (indicated by *), preservatives etc.
Everything that is in your product must be listed on the INCI, but unfortunately it's not always that straightforward. Take 'fragrance' or 'parfum' for example - this could include a whole host of ingredients to create a certain smell, but it's not broken down into the actual ingredients that create that particular smell.
Knowing how to read skincare labels and what the kind of ingredients are that you want to include, and just as importantly, exclude from your skin care regime is key in building your skincare routine.
Below is a quick overview to give you the essential information you need for reading and decoding a skincare label.
1. All about the INCI
The INCI is how cosmetic products list their ingredients on their packaging, and understanding how the INCI works is key to understanding the ingredients that make up your favourite products.
Unless you work in the industry you may never have come across the term INCI (the snappy term for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, is essentially a structured ingredients list that follows a clearly defined framework.
It is the the global designation for declaring the ingredients in a product and provides a common understanding for both industry and consumers across the world. This is very helpful when you look at purchasing products from other countries for example.
According to the INCI system, ingredients must be named using their scientific names and for plants their Latin names.
2. Order Matters
Ingredients are listed by those in the greatest amounts first, with the rest following in descending order. This doesn’t apply to ingredients that are present in concentrations that are less than 1%. They don't have to be listed in a particular order.
It’s also important to remember that just because an ingredient isn’t at the top of the list, it doesn’t mean it’s not important. Some ingredients are effective in smaller concentrations.
3. Don’t Be Put Off By Complex Sounding Ingredients
It’s easy to look at an ingredients list and be overwhelmed by what seems like an endless stream of baffling scientific words. With a little research and experience, you will start to see through the jargon. And don’t be afraid to be an ingredient detective – when in doubt, look it up! I listed a few resources for you to check out below, and there is of course always google.
You certainly don't have to be too worried about any ‘if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t put it on your face’ issues. Plant names, for example are listed in Latin, so Wheatgerm Oil (a lovely natural plant oil that we use in our Glow in a Bottle Facial Oil) becomes the scary sounding, Triticum Vulgare.
Also, it’s worth educating yourself on certain ingredients that may sound harmful in some way, but are actually completely safe to use on your skin.
An example of this would be 'Cetyl alcohol' and 'Stearyl alcohol'. These may sound like something I’d prefer to avoid since I don’t want to use skin-damaging alcohol, ie. ethanol on my skin - but these are actually types of fatty alcohol that stabilises emulsions and is widely used in skincare. It’s completely safe for you skin.
4. Watch Out For Allergens
If you have sensitive skin or allergies, it’s very important that you look at the allergens contained within a product. These are contained at the end of the ingredient list and marked by an asterisk.
Allergens aren’t necessarily a bad thing in and of themselves, but they are something to be aware of. In natural plant oils there are naturally occurring allergens for example.
5. Educating ourselves and resources for researching INCI names
We all know there are ingredients that are, and should be a staple in our skincare routines.
As a quick example - two of these for me are Vitamin C and Retinol. Both Vitamin C and Retinol (Vitamin A) have multiple different versions (derivatives) and can be included in different strengths in a product formulation.
As a consumer it can be so tricky to work out what the best options are for us - and sometimes it does involve trial and error because we may have a reaction to a certain derivative, while somebody else's skin responds wonderfully well to the exact same thing. That has certainly happened to me.
Cosmetics companies spend a lot of time and energy crafting their messaging around their products, their star active ingredients and the results they aim to create for their customers.
But when all is said and done I believe it's really our responsibility as consumers to educate ourselves about what we want to put on our skin, and what we want to exclude.
I'm writing this as both a product creator and a consumer of a range of cosmetics on a daily basis. I have very specific ideas about what I'd want to use and would never include an ingredient in a formula that I wouldn't be happy to use myself every single day.
Fortunately it's really easy these days to do your own research on any of your favourite cosmetic products, so if in doubt, check it out or contact the brand directly with your questions.
Below are two resources you can use to conduct your own search through their dedicated ingredients directories.
You can also check out the Ané Ingredients Directory to learn more about the active ingredients and botanicals we include in our products.