Guide to naming cosmetic raw materials - part 1

In the US and most places around the world, it is a requirement that you include a list of ingredients on any cosmetic product that is sold. On the FDA website you can even find the rules for listing ingredients. This is incredibly helpful if you are just starting your own cosmetic line.  

But knowing the ingredient listing rules is not much use if you don’t know the names of the ingredients you’re listing.  In this post we’ll look at the names of the cosmetic ingredients including where they come from, what they mean, and why they can be so complicated.

How chemicals get their names

If you took any chemistry courses during you schooling career you will no doubt have heard the names of many different materials or chemicals. There are simple names like Acetic Acid, Sucrose, and Sodium Chloride.  And you might have even heard some more complicated names like n,n Diethylmetatoluamide (DEET). The ingredient names you learned in chemistry courses include some common names but most come from the naming system of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).


The IUPAC system was designed for chemists as a way to easily communicate information about chemicals. If you are skilled in the nomenclature system you’ll be able to see the name of any ingredient and immediately know its molecular structure. The system is efficient, but complicated chemical structures can lead to incredibly long and complicated names. While this is useful for chemists writing academic papers, it’s not so useful for consumers who want to know the names of the ingredients in their cosmetics.  


So, the self regulatory body of the cosmetic industry (with the blessing of the FDA) came up with their own ingredient naming system.  The details are spelled out in the official book of cosmetic ingredient names, the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) which is produced by the PCPC.

The latest edition of the INCI Dictionary contains over 15,000 ingredients that have been registered for use in cosmetic products. Unfortunately, the book is not freely available. But you can purchase it here.

Naming cosmetic ingredients is complicated

The IUPAC system is great for naming individual molecules, but the reality is that most cosmetic ingredients are not individual molecules.  They are blends of chemicals so naming them gets complicated. When the INCI naming system was put together in the 1970’s there was an attempt to make names short, uncomplicated while still providing identifying information to consumers. And they’ve done a good job of this. But the system is made more complicated by the fact that different raw material suppliers create custom blends and endeavor to make their products stand out from the competition. This leads to all sorts of different names that aren’t official INCI names.  Let’s take a look at the different types of cosmetic ingredient names.

Types of ingredient names

Cosmetic raw materials can have multiple names.  Here are some that you can expect.

  • INCI names - These are the “official” names for specific cosmetic ingredients. When you are making your ingredient list these are the names you must use. When working with an ingredient always get the INCI name from your supplier. You can find an online guide to raw material suppliers in the INCI Suppliers Guide.
  • Common names - There were a lot of ingredients that had common names before the INCI system was created and these names have stuck. Water, Glycerin, Lye, Salt are just some examples. Some were incorporated into the INCI system but others weren’t.
  • Trade names - These are the names that raw material suppliers give their ingredients. They brand ingredients so that you think in terms of their material rather than some competitor’s.  Take an example like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.  One company refers to it as Stepanol WA-100 while another company might call it RHODAPON© LX-28/AF3.
  • Ingredient Blends - Another thing suppliers do is to sell blends of ingredients.  These materials are usually given a single name but are made up of multiple INCI ingredients.  When you are creating your ingredient list you have to list each INCI name separately.

When you’re formulating you’ll have to get used to this system of ingredient naming. You’ll want to learn what the cosmetic ingredient names are and what they mean. You can actually get a lot of information about the ingredients just by their names even if you can’t learn much about their structure. It’s not as important to learn trade names but even this can be useful.

In the next part of this series we’ll cover the details of what these cosmetic ingredient names can tell you about the material.


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