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Decoding What’s Inside Your Products

Author: Krysia Boinis
Decoding What’s Inside Your Products
If you are anything like me, you want to know exactly what your beauty products contain. Whether you are a seasoned clean product junkie or you’re in the process of switching out your conventional cosmetics for clean formulas one-by-one – you may find yourself stumped by confusing ingredient language. You're not alone.

Do you ever find yourself questioning what’s plant-based and what’s lab created? Do you want to know if there are meaningful amounts of the good stuff in a product? It sure can be perplexing to understand what’s really in there... 
Ingredients on cosmetic products must be listed in a specific format known as INCI, which is an acronym for the following mouthful: International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients. INCI was developed to standardize the way ingredients are listed on products to help people demystify what’s inside the products they choose. The intended purpose is to ensure consistency, provide transparency, avoid confusion and to discourage fantasy naming conventions.

Ingredient names in INCI lists are not in common English. They are required to be in Latin or Approved Scientific names. Latin Names are used for ingredients have not been chemically modified including plant based ingredients like essential oils, seed oils and fruit extracts. Approved Scientific Names are used for ingredients that have been chemically synthesized. This could include an innocent sugar based preservative like Pentylene Glycol. Or a similar sounding, but potentially skin irritating ingredient like Propylene Glycol (this ingredient is on our NO list). So, if you don’t happen to be a Latin scholar or a chemist the names can be confusing since a lot of Latin root words are used in chemistry! Foiled again; the intent to provide clarity for consumers is thwarted.

Ingredients must be listed in order of concentration in the product. This means you’ll see ingredients listed from the highest concentration to the lowest. Sounds simple, right? Read on…

The first five ingredients listed are typically the majority of the formula and are generally responsible for the functional properties of the product.  An exception is “Active Ingredients” found in “over-the-counter drugs”, like sunscreens. These are listed before all other ingredients even though they will often make up a small portion of the entire formula. Keep in mind some ingredients (like peptides) are functional at a very low level and may appear lower on an ingredient list.

Ingredients that are present at a concentration below 1% can be listed in any order. This can be extremely misleading to the untrained eye.
Take a look at the sample conventional shampoo formula below. We’ve already learned that the first five ingredients make up the majority of the formula and give a product its functional attributes. For reference we have inserted (1%) before the word “Fragrance”. It’s typical that Fragrance is included in a formula at 1% or less, so it’s reasonable to assume that every ingredient after the word Fragrance makes up 1% or less of the formula.
At the top of the sample shampoo ingredient list we've highlighted the desirable sounding ingredients like Shea Butter, Aloe, Corn Silk and Calendula Flower extract. Now, pull back and look at the entire ingredient list. The desirable ingredients appear to be in the top half of the formula. At first glance you might assume this shampoo is loaded with these nourishing ingredients, when in fact, it’s questionable that these ingredients have any value for hair in the miniscule amounts present.

Another exception to the rule is that Fragrance (Parfum) and Flavors get a free pass from transparent ingredient listing. An FDA regulation dating back to the 1960s allows brands to disguise the composition of fragrance or flavor blends in order to protect, “trade secrets”. Brands are permitted to list, “fragrance” as if it were a single unit, when in reality it might contain a hundred different synthetics, preservatives or potentially allergy provoking substances. The, "Fragrance" exception is a place where many questionable ingredients can be hidden from the eyes of unsuspecting consumers. 

When you see, “Fragrance” on an ingredient list it is worth taking a closer look at the brand’s ethos. Some reputable brands will use the word, “Fragrance” to save space on small packaging or for some other reasonable purpose.
We are committed to being transparent with the ingredients we use. Our goal is to eliminate confusion about the ingredients in our makeup, what their role is in the formula, the benefit to you and what their source is. Our extensive glossary lists all the ingredients we use – not just the highlighted featured ingredients. Take a peek to learn more about our choices.

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  • Lisa on

    Thank you for posting this. Very informative and helpful as I am currently replacing all my conventional makeup to clean beauty products and I love to read posts like this to help me better understand which ingredients are ok and which ones are better to stay away from

  • Amber V on

    I love this! So educational… I thought I knew a lot about reading labels, but this even opened my eyes to things I didn’t know. Thank you Vapour for helping to keep your consumer’s eyes open! Your transparent language is what keeps me coming back to your products :)

  • Marrissa on

    This was such a helpful blog post! Espcially the part about the 1. I always felt good when I bought something with questionable ingredients under the 1%. I will need to rethink this decision after reading this blog post.

  • Kathleen Bowers on

    Thank you for “reeducating” your clients about the truths of ingredient listings. I now feel more empowered to discern which ingredients I’m actually puttting on my skin, although when using Vapour products I don’t have to give it a second thought. You have earned my trust by taking the guesswork out of ingredients for the benefit of all of us.

  • LEnore on

    Thank you this is soo helpful. As I always read the ingredients and sometimes am confused!

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