Discover Real Ingredients: Decoding Ingredient Listings

Discovering real ingredients can be tough when you don’t know how to read an ingredient listing. The hard-to-pronounce, science-y sounding words are enough to make you want to hold up a white flag and surrender. But by doing so, you could be missing out on a whole heap of good-for-you ingredients, or exposing yourself to a lot of toxic ingredients. So, how exactly do you know if you're choosing products with non-toxic, good-for-you-ingredients? Here's what we know:

Understanding INCI Terminology

In the United States, as well as Canada, EU, Australia, and Japan, it is required that all manufacturers of personal care products use the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) language to list their ingredients on product labels. INCI is a uniform labeling system that successfully establishes a single ingredient labeling name for each ingredient, which promotes a common understanding throughout the world.

The downside to INCI is that ingredient names become unrecognizable and are sometimes chemical-sounding. Take for example Simmondsia Chinensis, Butyrospermum Parkii, and Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride. They aren’t chemicals at all. They are simply Jojoba Oil, Shea Butter, and Fractionated Coconut Oil. Three very common, safe, and wonderful ingredients. Check out our ingredients page to discover more INCI/ingredient pairings.

Harsh ingredients can go overlooked, too. We certainly don't expect you to memorize all the INCI names, but here are a few to keep in mind (and avoid!) when scanning ingredient listings:

  • Ingredients that start with ethyl-, methyl-, propyl-, butyl-. Most often these are associated with parabens, which are the most commonly used skin care preservative (mainly because of its low cost), and have been linked to breast cancer.
  • Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES), and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) are sulfates, which are known skin irritants and hormone disruptors.
  • Yellow No. 5 or Red No. 30 can contain traces of lead.
  • "Fragrance" or "parfum" on ingredient lists, as well as ethylene oxide, or Dibutylphthlalate (DBP, DEP, butyl ester), can indicate that any number of toxic ingredients have been used, including phthalates. Read more about the dangers of fragrance here.
  • DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine), and TEA  (triethanolamine) are hormone-disrupting, carcinogenic ingredients that have already been banned in Europe.

FDA ingredient List Requirements

Beyond the INCI requirement, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) also has rules governing the ingredient label and in what order the ingredients must appear. The general rule is that ingredients must be listed in descending order of predominance. This means that if the product formula contains more Tamanu Oil than it does essential oil, like in our Tamanu Luxury Organic Facial Cleanser, the Tamanu Oil would be placed first or before the essential oil. However, there are a few exceptions to this requirement:

  • Active drug ingredients. If the cosmetic product is also a drug the active drug ingredients must be declared first or before the listing of the cosmetic ingredients. It is also mandatory that the drug ingredients be labeled with “Active Ingredients” and the cosmetic ingredients that follow be labeled with “Other Ingredients,” in descending order of predominance of course 
  • Ingredients with less than 1% concentration. Ingredients present at a concentration less that 1% may be listed in any order after the listing of the ingredients present at more than 1% in descending order of predominance. Note, we urge you to not discount ingredients that have a low percentage. Just because an ingredient appears at the end of the list, it doesn't mean it's less effective. Also, toxic ingredients at any percentage can be hazardous to your health. 
  • Color additives. Color additives of any concentration may be listed in any order after the listing of the ingredients, which are not color additives. 
  • And Other Ingredients. Ingredients that are trade secrets do not need to be disclosed on the label. In lieu of declaring the name of that ingredient, the phrase "and other ingredients" may be used at the end of the ingredient list.

In addition to proprietary ingredients falling under the “all other ingredients” loophole, any fragrance or flavor ingredients used can simply be listed as “fragrance” and “flavor” on the label. This concerns us because any number of potentially toxic ingredients can fall under “fragrance.” Even more unnerving is that masking agents (an ingredient used to mask the undesirable smell of an ingredient) do not necessarily need to be listed at all. Again, these masking agents could be potentially toxic ingredients.

And lastly, it’s important to know that while its required for all ingredients to be listed on packaging labels, it is not required for them to be listed on a manufacturer’s website*. Make sure you always double check the product label for the most accurate ingredient information or do some additional research on the EWG’s Skin Deep Database. They have tested over 70,000 products and will list all ingredients and highlight any of concern.

Understanding how an ingredient label works is an essential step in the discovery process of real ingredients. Become your own expert and learn how recognize the good and the bad so that you ensure you are only purchasing items with the highest ingredient integrity.


*We list ALL of our ingredients on both our product label and our website. However, because INCI terminology is a challenge to decode, we use the common name on our website to help you easily determine what products are right for you.


1 comment

  • Cindy

    great info

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