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...
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.
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.