How to analyze a cosmetic ingredient list
An important skill for every budding cosmetic chemist or formulator to develop is the ability to analyze a cosmetic ingredient list. By honing this skill some things you’ll be able to do include
- choosing the right ingredient for any effect you want
- knowing which ingredients work together and which don’t
- duplicating or closely matching any cosmetic product on the market
If this sounds interesting to you, read on to learn how you can go from being baffled by ingredient lists to a competent ingredient list detective.
Preliminary stuff to know – Ingredient list rules
Alright, the first thing you have to know if you’re going to analyze ingredient lists is the rules companies are supposed to follow when putting them together. We’ve done a previous post on how to label cosmetic ingredients but the few basic rules you need to know is
- Ingredients must be listed by their proper INCI names. For more information see this post on cosmetic ingredient names.
- Ingredients must be listed in order of concentration if they are in the formula at higher than 1% concentration level
- Ingredients used at 1% or below can be listed in any order
And there are some other rules followed by companies who sell products outside the US such as
- Known allergens are listed near the end
- Colorants are listed last
- Language appropriate to the country is used
OTC Product labeling
Also, in the US some products that seem like cosmetics may actually be over the counter drugs. Here is a list of cosmetics that are drugs. For these products you follow different labeling rules but the most important for our purposes includes
- Separately listing the approved active ingredients with concentration percentages & function
- Listing inactive ingredients in alphabetical order using INCI names
Types of ingredients
Knowing the rules of how ingredients are supposed to be listed is important but so is being able to identify the general types of ingredients in a formula. We have an entire course on Cosmetic Raw Materials which gets into all the details, so you should check that out if you’re interested. However, you can start understanding ingredients by understanding that there are only three categories of cosmetic ingredients. See this post on the types of cosmetic ingredients, they include
- Functional ingredients – ones that make deliver the claimed product benefits
- Aesthetic Modifier ingredients – ones that make the functional ingredients more pleasant to use
- Claims ingredients – ones that are used to help marketers tell a story
Of these raw materials, the functional and aesthetic modifiers are the most important for making the products work. Claims ingredients are likely the most important for selling a product.
Ingredient analysis procedure
With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s move on to actually analyzing a cosmetic ingredient list. Here are the 7 easy steps. And if you are not looking to duplicate someone else’s formula, you can just do the first 5 steps.
- Step 1 – Review the claims
- Step 2 – Identify the functional ingredients
- Step 3 – Identify the aesthetic modifiers
- Step 4 – Identify the claims ingredients
- Step 5 – List the crucial ingredients
- Step 6 – Guess where the 1% line is
- Step 7 – Create a potential prototype formula
Step 1 - Reviewing Claims
To figure out how a formula is delivering the promised benefits you’ll first need to figure out what those are. In the cosmetic industry we call them claims. Read this post for a review of how I review cosmetic claims. Basically, you read through the stuff written on the package, list out the different claims and figure out what claims require ingredients to make them true. For example, a shampoo will say something like “gently cleans hair” or “protects hair from heat damage.” Those require some ingredient to provide the benefit, but claims like “doesn’t contain parabens” or “our best formula” doesn’t.
Step 2 - Identifying functional ingredients
Once you know which are the claims that require ingredients to support the benefit, then you start looking through the ingredient to find the ones that doe. These are the functional ingredients. Make a list of all the functional ingredients. Also record what function they have. These should be just the ones that are crucial to making the product work. So, this will also typically be the smallest number of ingredients in the whole formula. Things like surfactants or cosmetic preservatives are functional ingredients. Things like solvents or cosmetic thickeners aren’t. Those are the next type of ingredient.
Step 3 - Identify the aesthetic modifier ingredients
The next category of ingredient to look for are the aesthetic modifier ingredients. These are the ones that affect the color, viscosity, pH, stability, odor, etc of the formula. These ingredients don’t provide any substantial benefits for the main function of the product but they do make it more pleasant and effective to use. In addition to thickeners and solvents as mentioned, things like fragrance, preservatives, antioxidants, adjustment agents, emulsifiers and other ingredients are aesthetic modifiers. Make a list of these and list what they are doing in the formula.
Step 4 - Identify the claims ingredients
It usually surprises people how many claims ingredients are used in cosmetics. Most of the ingredients that get talked about in marketing messages (e.g. vitamins, proteins, anti-aging ingredients, herbal extracts etc.) are just claims ingredients. They are not expected to have any actual impact on the performance of the product. In fact, they are put in at low levels and are only included so the marketing people can tell a compelling story. Go through the ingredient list and identify the claims ingredients.
Step 5 - List the crucial ingredients
You should now have a list of functional, aesthetic modifiers, and claims ingredients. Your next task is to figure out which ingredients are crucial to the formula. There is no specific set of rules to what these are but here are some guidelines.
- Functional ingredients should all be crucial. In truth, many formulators are inefficient and include multiple ingredients when a single one would work fine. For example you often see humectants like glycerin, propylene glycol, and hyaluronic acid in the same formula even though they have the same function.
- All aesthetic modifiers are crucial – Again there shouldn’t be any unnecessary ingredients here but some formulators use multiple ingredients when a single ingredient might do. This could also be a result of using an ingredient blend.
- Almost none of the claims ingredients are crucial – Since these are put in the formula for marketing ad copy, you shouldn’t need them to make the product work. Sometimes the claims ingredients can affect the product color or odor so in those cases they are crucial for that.
Step 6 - Guess the 1% line
Remember above when we listed the 1% level of ingredients? If you can figure out where that line is, you’ll be able to start developing a rough approximation of the whole formula. See this post about finding the 1% line (https://chemistscorner.com/figuring-out-the-1-line/).
Step 7 - Create a potential prototype formula
Using the list of crucial ingredients made in Step 5 and your knowledge of the 1% level in Step 6, guess at levels to create a starting prototype. We go through the details of this in our Practical Cosmetic Formulation course but you can try doing it by finding supplier suggested ingredient levels and using some logic.
Cosmetic ingredient list analysis – Case Study
Now you know the rules, let’s see it in action. Let’s look at the example of the Jergens Natural Glow Revitalizing Daily Moisturizer.
Here is the ingredient list.
Water, Glycerin, Zea Mays (Corn) Starch, Cetearyl Alcohol, Dihydroxyacetone, Mineral Oil, Petrolatum, Ceteareth 20, Ethylhexyl Isononanoate, Steareth 2, Dimethicone, Fragrance, Octyldodecyl Myristate, Stearic Acid, Hydroxyhexyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Isohexadecane, DMDM Hydantoin, Methylparaben, BHT, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Polysorbate 60, Citric Acid, Olea Europea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Extract, Tocopherol, Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Caramel, Erythrulose
Identifying the main claims
The first step is to find the main benefit claims. These include
- Gradually creates natural looking color
The rest of the claims are marketing fluff.
Cosmetic ingredient identification
The next steps are categorizing the various components in terms of functional, aesthetic modifiers, and claims ingredients.
This formula lists a whopping 31 ingredients! But what do they do?
When identifying ingredients it’s typically helpful to find the 1% line first. This takes a little practice and experience helps but for most formulas the 1% line will be early in the list. I also know that things like fragrance or plant extracts are not usually used at levels above 1% so look for ingredients like that. The reason you look for the 1% line is that most of the functional ingredients will be before it. Ingredients after the 1% line are most likely either aesthetic modifiers or claims ingredients (with the exception of colors).
Matching claims to function
This product claims to moisturize change the color of skin so there will have to be some type of functional ingredient to do that. First, let’s consider moisturizers.
This product has numerous conditioning ingredients or moisturizers. It includes Glycerin, Mineral Oil, Petrolatum, and Dimethicone. There are other ingredients that could be moisturizers but these are the main ones.
For changing the color of skin this product incorporates Erythrulose. This is an ingredient that chemically reacts with skin proteins to create a browning (or orange) effect. This self-tanner ingredient is the functional ingredient for the color change.
Crucial functional ingredients
So, there you have it. Of the 31 ingredients in this formula only 5 are actually functional.
2. Mineral Oil
The rest of the ingredients
With 26 more ingredients to choose from, a lot of them are aesthetic modifiers. In fact, I count about 20 aesthetic modifier ingredients in this list. The other 6 ingredients are claims ingredients including the following…
Olea Europea (Olive) Fruit Oil,
Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Extract,
Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil
Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil
Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract
I’ll leave it to you to work out the 20 aesthetic modifier ingredients. The crucial functional ingredients will include the functional ingredients and the aesthetic modifiers. You don’t actually need any of the claims ingredients. Having this list of ingredients can get you started on figuring out the formulation. We’ll save creating a starting formula from an ingredient list for another time.
Here are just a few nuggets that should be helpful for analyzing ingredient lists.
Be skeptical – Don’t be duped by raw material marketing or popular press write-ups. Just because a blogger or raw material company says an ingredient has an effect or function, that doesn’t mean it actually works. Most of the “active ingredients” in cosmetics are really just claims ingredients.
Small amounts can have big effects – Just because a raw material is below the 1% line doesn’t mean that it can’t have a big impact on the formula. Carbomer is generally used at 0.1% and it is quite impactful.
Search for raw material blends – Often materials on the ingredient list are there because they are part of a raw material blend. For example, Propylene Glycol is often listed on formulas but is only there because it is a solvent for one of the plant extracts.
Sources for cosmetic ingredients & ingredient lists
These days you can find most product ingredient lists by doing a Google search. Sites like Sephora.com, Ulta.com, Target.com, and even Amazon.com are incredibly helpful.
There are a few good sources for looking up ingredients and what they do. For formulators, the best online sources are
A site like Incidecoder can be quite helpful in finding ingredient lists and ingredient function. However, be careful because they are not skeptical enough about the effectiveness of raw materials. They pass along dubious marketing benefits as if they are real. But from a consumer standpoint and a top level check, it’s quite useful.
Learning to analyze a cosmetic ingredient list is a crucial skill for you to learn if you want to be a competent cosmetic formulator. Follow the steps outlined here, practice on existing ingredient lists, and start developing a sense of what raw materials are important and which are just marketing fluff. When you can do that with any ingredient list you find, then you’ll really be an expert cosmetic chemist.
If you want to become an expert in cosmetic raw materials this course will help you get there.