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.