7 things you need to know about ingredient lists on cosmetics
Ingredient lists are your only source of information about what's actually inside the cosmetics and beauty products that get on your eyes, skin, lips, face, nails and hair - in short, everywhere. Being better informed about the ins and outs of ingredient lists means you - the consumer - is making a smarter and safer
choice of products. Here are some basic facts and takeaways about ingredient lists that you need to know - and these are applicable to any cosmetic you buy here in India. We will try not to get too technical here!
#1: Where on the list are you?
Guess you know this already, but it's worth repeating. Ingredients are listed in decreasing order of quantities added - i.e., highest first. So, that expensive aloe lotion is not going to be a wonder-formula if "aloe juice" or "aloe extract" comes up right at the end of a long list. Would just a few grains of sugar make your coffee sweeter?
Also, the order can be mixed up towards the tail end of the list (ingredients less than 1% in concentration can be mentioned in any order).
Takeaway: Look for the where in addition to the what on ingredient lists
#2: Watch out for "key" words
"Key ingredients", "herbal actives", "active ingredients", "contains" or any such combination usually means it is not the full list of what's inside. Similarly, words like excipients, aqueous base, oil base etc hide more than they reveal. A full ingredient list typically starts with the word "Ingredients:" and is a longish list (often, not always, starting with DM water). With some practice, you should easily be able to tell an incomplete one from a complete one.
Takeaway: There is only one legit list, and that starts with "Ingredients:"
#3: There are exceptions
This one's tricky. All over the world (mostly), laws mandate manufacturers to make ingredient declarations in standard formats, with a few exceptions here and there. There are several (legal) exceptions to the rule here in India as well, which means you won't fully know what's inside. In India, the known exceptions are:
- Proprietary ayurvedic medicines: while they do declare ingredients, they are not mandated to follow the same standard format used for "cosmetics". Check if your pack says "ayurvedic medicine" or "ayurvedic preparation". Chances are, a full disclosure is not there (not to say that means bad product)
- Solids weighing less than 30g and liquids measuring less than 60ml do not need to carry the ingredient list. Meaning: lipsticks, eye pencils, lip glosses, lip balms and even small packs of toiletries and skin care products need not declare their full list of ingredients. Check your drawer to see how many fall in this category
- RX products: Prescription derma products like some anti-dandruff shampoos and sunscreens need only mention their active ingredients as per the law
Do let us know if you know of other exceptions in India or in any other country.
Well, there are exceptions - keep your eyes open
#4: Ask not what's in, ask what it does
A list full of people's names can have two funny outcomes: no one does anything, or people get all mixed up in their roles. That can happen with cosmetic ingredients, too. Just because you see something in there doesn't mean the conditions
for it to do the job are fulfilled. That's what you need good chemists for.
Takeaway: Don't get carried away, look for proof of action.
#5: Standard names
Don't glaze over when you see stuff like sodium cocoate (INCI for good-old coconut oil soap) or cocos nucifera oil (INCI for coconut oil). Like how the name on your passport is different from what your friends call you, all ingredients need to follow INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) norms, so that, well, the rose is not called by any other name. If you need common names, just Google!! Or ask us - we are happy to help. PS: even so, there are regional differences in the way stuff is called - for example, fragrance vs parfum
Takeaway: Don't get overwhelmed with the chemistry. Check stuff out with experts and trustworthy websites
#6: Trojan horses
Some ingredients, by design, and almost never for deception, are used as pre-mixed compounds, and their components are not widely disclosed. Best example: fragrance/parfum, something you will find in almost every product. Did you know commercially used fragrances are blends of anywhere from 10 to 100 compounds to produce the right notes? And that this list is a secret that's not shared even with insiders?
Leading brands use fragrances that conform to IFRA (International Fragrance Research Association) guidelines that strictly regulate what can and cannot be used in fragrances. Some international brands have gone a step ahead and knocked out some more doubtful stuff (such as phthalates) from their fragrances. So look out for "phthalate-free" brands. We will talk more about phthalates in another post.
Takeaway: Look for brands that go the extra mile with ingredient safety
#7: Not all names are equal
Even with INCI guidelines in place, there's still lots of empty spaces possible. You can tell the quantity of raw materials used from the list, but can you tell thequality? Is aloe juice = aloe juice? Is green tea extract = green tea extract? Just like the quality of fruits and vegetables you buy is never the same, the quality of ingredients, particularly the natural ones, can vary widely between brands.
Takeaway: Trust brands that tell you where they get their raw materials from, and what actives they retain in those natural extracts. Make sure you get the wheat, not the chaff.
So long, then. There's lots more we can go on about, but we hope you will slow down and think as you shop the aisle or browse the ecomm site for your next cosmetic product.
As always, we love your feedback and comments, keep 'em coming!