Ingredient Lists

Ingredient Lists

Ingredient lists have been a feature of cosmetic and personal care products for so long now it is hard to remember that they are fairly recent innovation.  The actual regulations came in I think in 1990 – though many companies started listing them ahead of the law changing.  When I started in the business in the early eighties they were being talked about but a lot of people didn’t think anything that radical would ever actually happen.  I remember my boss at the time picking up a pack  we’d mocked up to see how they would look and announcing that the world had gone mad.

The original impetus to bring them in came from dermatologists.   People with severe reactions to particular products tend to end with dermatologists.  Dermatologists then carry out a patch test on them and identify what is causing the problem.  But in the days when formulations were a closely guarded secret this wasn’t a huge amount of help.

The idea of listing all the chemicals on the pack must have been a reasonably obvious one.  And as we all now know, their wish was granted.  So if you are sensitive to say sodium sulphosuccinate, you can pick the products that don’t contain it.

Because of the intention behind it, the legislation laid down some guidelines on the format of the ingredient list.  In particular, everyone had to use standard names from an officially published dictionary.  These names are known in the biz as either INCI names or ICID names.  These names are often shortened to make them easier for non-chemists to read.

This all sounds like a good initiative, and so it is.  But there have been some unexpected consequences.  For a start, a lot of people are confused by chemical names, even the supposedly user friendly INCI names.  A study in Sweden for example found that “46% of the patients found it difficult or extremely difficult to read the ingredient labelling of cosmetics”.

Customer confusion isn’t helped by companies who can’t resist the temptation to use the officially mandated ingredient list as yet another opportunity to tell you how great their stuff is.  Asterixes and footnotes abound in some product sectors, particularly the natural and organic sectors.  I suppose one could applaud their enthusiasm, but it wasn’t what the things were put there for. Certainly being told that limonene is a natural component of essential oils doesn’t alter the fact that if you are allergic to limonene you should avoid the product. Plenty of natural products cause allergic reactions.

Another group of people who have taken advantage of ingredient lists are formulation chemists like myself.   If you want to come up with a new product you can now draw on the skill and experience of hundreds of your colleagues in other companies.  Great stuff. Hard work pays off in the end, but this is particularly satisfying when it is somebody else’s hard work.  The flip side to this is it probably devalues the work of cosmetic chemists by making the job that bit easier.  Indeed there are now members of the public who formulate products as a hobby. They exchange notes online on copying big name brands – ‘dupes’ they call them.

Another group of people who have latched onto ingredient lists in a big way are scaremongers who have succeeded in creating a whole industry out of spreading stories about how bad the ingredients in personal care products are for you.  That is the way legislation goes sometimes.  Unintended consequences are often the most significant ones.  I for one never thought that whole databases of misleading information would be created and put up online.  (The worst source of information is the excruciatingly bad Skin Deep database.)

But ingredient lists do have one consequence I really like.  I can now do blog posts on chemicals that interest me and be pretty confident that one day someone will be curious about a name they have read on a tube or a bottle.  If that leads them to this blog, well that is quite nice.


Here are the details about the study on the confused Swedes.

12 thoughts on “Ingredient Lists”

  1. Thank you Colin. I must admit I am particularly interested in reading your ‘ingredients’ posts for the exact reason you describe: you always enlighten!

  2. “Hard work pays off in the end, but this is particularly satisfying when it is somebody else’s hard work.”

    Gosh Colin – I hope you at least say thank you to the other formulators when you copy their work!

    Surely it is far more satisfying when you create something original and unique?

  3. Not sure what happened above but to continue

    I’d like to say in response to Ed, who said “copy”? More like looking at proven formulas, starting with that and adding, improving etc. Like a chef or a baker. If trying to come up with a new fantastic chocolate cake, you wouldn’t start from scratch. You take a basic chocolate cake recipe and go from there. It’s this way with most things in live.
    I seriously doubt any one who goes into the profession of being a formula chemist would simply “copy” other formulas. I know for sure they wouldn’t be very successful.
    Also it was a joke.

  4. Hi Denise,

    It was me who said “copy”! So did Colin as well, but using other words. I realise it was a little joke. Mine was a little dig back, which is in the context of discussions started on another thread.

    BTW Colin – those little asterixes and footnotes are compulsory on the ingredients list for us at least…but I suspect you already knew that 😉

    I think that is a fine sentiment you are expressing Denise – effectively standing on the shoulders of giants to create better products.

    But the reality is a bit more disappointing. Our little company gets emails constantly from formulators wanting to know how we make our products – they are rather amusing (the way they try to hide that they are formulators) particularly as many haven’t heard of Rapportive 😉

    But these are amateurs really – and not professional formulators.

    However, there are thousands of identikit products out there – particularly in the naturals sector, so are they all copying from each other?

    Actually, I think one problem is that these companies don’t formulate or manufacture themselves.

    We’ve met formulators who quite happily tell us, oh yes, I formulated a range for that company, and this company, and oh yes, that one too.

    So perhaps no surprise that these companies all have similar products!

    Also, they are formulated to be manufactured by a contract manufacturer – who typically have a standard base cream.

    This isn’t copying of course – but I think that goes on as well. I am quite happy to agree with you that good formulators wouldn’t copy 🙂

  5. T.S.Eliot said that immature poets have influences. Mature poets steal. I have not the slightest hesitation in indulging in the sincerest form of flattery when the occasion arises, and I can be very sincere indeed. My job is solving problems, not expressing myself. I’ve got a blog to do that on.

    So if it isn’t covered by a patent I regard anything on the market as fair game. If a straight copycat product is needed that is what I’ll deliver.

    But having said that, ripping off other people is rarely a profitable business. There is usually a twist on most projects so I don’t spend much of my time in straight copies.

  6. Colin and all,

    As an amateur formulator I have bought dozens and dozens of creams and moisturisers from various companies to see how they feel and work. There have been some I like and some I dont. I have also inquired with companies about their preservatives but I find that it is easier to contact ones abroad as you are often seen as a threat and they are not so precious. I do not think there is any shame in trying to gain knowledge. Just because you try and find out about ingredients does not mean you are going to make a copy.

    I have made many creams (usually a few a week – bit obsessive), tried lots of emulsifyers and combinations of vegetable oils and active ingredients in order to create my perfect moisturiser.

    ‘Ed’ – can I ask really what makes your formulas so unique -almost all of the ingredients are commonly found in many formulations. Tropic skincare has a very similar ingredient list.

    From what I can see many cosmetic chemists try and copy formulas. There are e-books on that very subject that are easily accessible. They then usually put change something to make it unique.

  7. Hi Rebecca,

    Is Coca Cola being a bit precious in not revealing their secret formula? Did L’Oreal email you their full formulas?!

    Colin has eloquently said that other companies’ hard work is fair game once it is on the market.

    He’s absolutely right. But you shouldn’t complain (or criticise) if they don’t want to tell you more than the minimum about how they make their products.

    Good luck in creating your perfect moisturiser – and I’ll look out for it when you launch 🙂

    Best wishes,


  8. Hi Ed,

    To answer your question Coco Cola is not being precious about not talking about their formula but that didn’t stop Pepsi from making something similar if not better.

    Of course L’Oreal wouldn’t tell you their formula but if you called them up they would probably e-mail you the INCI for any particular product for the purpose of customer care and they wouldn’t care if you were a formulator as they know a good formulator would just buy bucket loads of the product they want to ‘copy’ – A company like L’Oreal know all the tricks of the trade having probably used most of them.

    I am sorry if you felt ‘criticised’ however, no one is saying you should tell people your forumlas. That would be silly and it is not expected – well not from me anyway – however you did say on a previous blog that putting the INCI’s on your website (something you have done quite recently) might stop people like me from enquiring. I for one am not interested in making something that another company has made simply because I would like to be as original as I can and I want to offer something different.


  9. I read your last paragraph: “But it does have one consequence I quite like. I can now do blog posts on chemicals that interest me and be pretty confident that one day someone will be curious about a name they have read on a tube or a bottle. If that leads them to this blog, well that is quite nice.”

    In response, I’d like to say PLEASE DO! I often google unfamiliar ingredients if I see something I haven’t come across yet (although I know it’s of limited usefulness, due to the way ingredients combine and interact and all, but it’s a starting point), and I’m always sick of seeing the first couple of results be dumb alarmist sites like EWG et al. I’d love to hear from someone who actually knows his stuff!

    1. Thanks for the kind words Musical Houses. Incidentally, you will not know this but you were the first person I didn’t know already who spoke to me on Twitter. So I have always regarded you as a special friend.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.