A Cosmetic Chemists Guide to Ingredient Lists

In the United States (and most other places around the world), beauty product manufacturers are required to list the ingredients used to make their products in a specific way. The current guidelines can be found on the FDA website here — FDA Cosmetic Labeling.

Since it isn’t a terribly interesting read, we’ll try to summarize the key points here. We’ll also explain to you how ingredient listings can be useful to cosmetic formulators. cosmetic ingredient list

Cosmetic Ingredient names

We previously wrote about how cosmetic ingredients get their names so go read that for more details. Basically, the names come from the INCI Dictionary. These are the names that are supposed to be used by everyone although some manufacturers might take liberty with their labels and include inappropriate terms (e.g. ‘purified’ water)

Order of listing

In this post on how to label cosmetics, we gave an explanation of the rules in which ingredients are supposed to be listed. Essentially, things in concentration above 1% are supposed to be listed in order of concentration and things at 1% or lower can be listed in any order. Colors are supposed to be listed at the end.

Where to find cosmetic ingredient names

When you are working with a raw material, the supplier will have the INCI name listed in the specification sheet. Often, raw materials are made up of multiple compounds so there will be a listing of multiple INCI names. To create the correct ingredient list, you have to know the % of each compound in the raw material. This can get complicated and we’ll save the topic for another time.

Sometimes the INCI names are pending (if it’s a new material) but you should generally avoid working with raw materials that don’t already have an INCI designation.

If you are searching for a raw material, a nice, free way to find them is via the INCI directory. This excellent resource was created by Specialchem4cosmetics.com and is really helpful.

Where to find ingredient lists

Now that you know how to decipher raw material lists, you need to get some so you can start using them. Of course, an obvious place to get ingredient lists is to go to the store and get products. They should be listed there right on the back of any personal care and cosmetic product.

But going to the store can be inconvenient and you can often get ingredient lists just by searching the Internet. Two excellent sources of cosmetic ingredient lists is Drugstore.com and Ulta.com. The best thing about these sources is that they also include the cosmetic claims which can also be helpful.

How to use ingredient lists

Alright, now you have an ingredient list and understand what it means, you might be wondering, so what? Good question.

Here are a few things that I’ve used ingredient lists for as a cosmetic chemist.

1. For copying competitor’s formulas — Copying (or knocking off) a competitive formula is a great exercise for any new cosmetic chemist. It gives you a great sense of what the raw materials do, which ones are important, and how they affect different performance characteristics. There is no better teacher than going through the trial and error process of copying a formula from an ingredient list.

Remember to use the few clues that you have. For example, identify the probable 1% line, do a % solids test to figure out how much water is in the formula, and take pH and viscosity readings to figure out your targets. Then make some prototypes and see how close you can get.

2. For new product ideas — Marketers are always looking for new ingredients so whenever you come upon a novel ingredient, write it down, learn about it and pitch it at the next new product meeting if you wish.

3. To learn new ingredients — Whenever you see an ingredient you don’t know, take the time to look it up. Figure out why it might be in the formula. This way you can use ingredient lists as a way to help build your cosmetic science vocabulary. When you were learning to read they told you whenever you read a word you didn’t know the meaning of you should look it up in the dictionary. Well, whenever you see a raw material you don’t know, look it up in the INCI dictionary.

Have you found useful ways to use ingredient listings? Leave a comment below and let everyone know.

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