You’ve just bought the most amazing cream ever. At least that’s what the marketing led you to believe. It claimed enriched with vitamins and lots of other wonderful natural ingredients. So now you are at home with some more time than in the store and you read the label more carefully and you can’t find the amazing ingredients listed, so you read more….and oh, wait…..there they are right at the bottom.
What does that mean?
Let’s back up a little bit here. Firstly, it is a legal requirement in most countries in the world for a cosmetic product to have an ingredient listing. Even in South Africa. I still see a lot of products being sold without an ingredient listing or without a proper one. Made with love and some almond oil is NOT an ingredient listing.
The reason you have to list every ingredient is for transparency. Same as with food products. Allergies and sensitive skins is a reality and how can someone consciously use a product if they don’t know exactly what is in it. So many consumers get fooled by cosmetic brands and it really gets me annoyed.
Even if the product is 100% natural, there is still a huge irritancy or allergic potential and listing the ingredients is vital. Imagine you have a severe nut allergy and you buy a beautifully packaged organic body cream. Only they failed to mention there is almond oil in it and you have a reaction? That may be an extreme example, but natural products cause some of the most severe allergic reactions. The nut allergy is a great example, what about being allergic to honey, beeswax, gluten, lactose intolerant…I think you get the picture.
Many natural products will then do a wonderful fragrance free claim but then use essential oils. Did you know that essential oils often contain higher levels of allergens than synthetic fragrances? These fall under a particular list of allergens that must be listed on every product.
So what should you expect on the ingredient list? Well, everything that goes into the product must be listed, even if it is the smallest, tiny, teeny, little drop in a ten-ton vat, it has to be listed. Many cosmetic ingredients are available in blends. This means that the manufacturer can buy one ingredient that is made up of a few different products. Kind of like buying garam masala instead of the individual spices that make it up. On the ingredient list though every individual ingredient must be listed, not just the combined name.
A lot of plant extracts also have solvents in them, so even the solvent has to be listed. If there is a preservative in that extract it also has to be listed. Even if the manufacturer is not adding any preservative, they still have to list the one that is in the bought material they are using.
It is quite involved and the suppliers of the raw materials supply detailed documents purely for the calculation of the ingredient listing. It is not as simple as taking an aqueous cream, adding some extra oil and essential oils and then branding it as made with love. Contains oil and essential oils.
There is also a very specific order that the ingredients must be listed in. It is listed in the order of most to least. Remember the cream you bought and the vitamin was listed right at the end…..yip, it’s only got a little in it. Not really enriched with it, is it?
Usually the listing starts with water. Let’s look at an example and I’ll explain it.
Aqua, Glycerin, Paraffinum Liquidum, Stearic Acid, Glyceryl Stearate, Simmondsia Chenensis Seed Oil, Tocopheryl Acetate, Dimethicone, Carbomer, Phenoxyethanol, Limonene, Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Salicylate, Parfum, sodium hydroxide
That would be a simple body cream with a bit of Jojoba Oil and Vitamin E. The marketing would probably read as follows:
This light, nourishing lotion absorbs quickly and leaves your skin feeling moisturized and nourished. Enriched with caring Jojoba Oil and Vitamin E. Paraben Free.
The list makes more sense to me than you, so I will give you more details about what each thing is.
Aqua – water, usually makes up the biggest % of most creams, Glycerin – humectant so it helps to add moisture to the skin, Paraffinum Liquidum – mineral oil which gives the cream a more substantial feel, Stearic Acid – thickens the cream and can stabilize the emulsion, Glyceryl Stearate – emulsion stabiliser, Simmondsia Chenensis Seed Oil – jojoba oil, Tocopheryl Acetate – vitamin e , Dimethicone – silicone which will give a nice feel, Carbomer – water based thickener so that the cream will have a lighter feel and not need too many waxes to make it thick, Phenoxyethanol – preservative , Limonene – fragrance allergen, Benzyl Alcohol – solvent usually combined with the preservative , Benzyl Salicylate – fragrance allergen, Parfum – fragrance, sodium hydroxide – pH adjustment to make carbomer effective
I’m sure you’ve noticed the French or Latin names in the listings. The ingredients must be listed using the INCI Name. This is Ingredient Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients. It’s the universal name it is known by so that it can properly identified. Not the common name. Sometime you see emulsifying wax on the ingredients, that is incorrect and doesn’t actually tell you anything.
If I had to break it down further into how much of each is in the cream, it would look roughly like this:
Aqua, – 65 – 75 %
Glycerin, 2 – 5 %
Paraffinum Liquidum, 2 – 5%
Stearic Acid, 1 – 4%
Glyceryl Stearate, 1 – 4%
Simmondsia Chenensis Seed Oil, 1 – 2%
Tocopheryl Acetate, 1% (in a mass market product it is unlikely to be above 1%)
Carbomer, 0.2% – 0.5%
Phenoxyethanol, – in combination with Benzyl Alcohol – 0.8% – 1%
Limonene, – part of fragrance
Benzyl Salicylate, – part of fragrance
Parfum – 0.2%
Sodium Hydroxide – 0.01% – 0.2% – dependant on % of carbomer
Now you read it and you realize that enriched with Jojoba oil and Vitamin E mans that it has less than 2% in it. The feel of the cream makes it feel enriched, but the really beneficial ingredients are very low.
This is a very basic example but most mass market products compete on price, so they cannot add expensive ingredients at high % because then the product would cost more than the competitors. So creative wording is used to make them more appealing but the difference in effect is probably not much. Also, in truth, if it feels good, you will buy it again. We all do.
In more expensive products there are usually higher % of the beneficial ingredients, so the above example would look completely different.
Some ingredients only need to be added at a small % to be effective. Like peptides, they are effective at low %, so is hyaluronic acid. So it depends on the ingredient. But, those ingredients are also still very expensive. A lot of the advanced premium active ingredients cost loads more than gold! For example, some of the most common peptides used in anti-age products cost more than R 1000 (USD 80) for less than a teaspoon amount.
Back to the example, as you can see the order is from the highest to the lowest. The rule is that from 1% and lower the list can be in any order. So the standard practice is to list the claimed ingredients first, then preservatives, fragrance, colourants and allergens.
The allergens are calculated based on how much fragrance or essential oil is in the product. The supplier of the fragrance or essential oil will supply an allergen declaration certificate. This details the exact % of allergen in the fragrance. The formulator then calculates the amount of allergen in the final formulation. Then if the amount exceeds 0.01% in a leave on product, or 0.001% for a rinse off product, it has to be listed in the ingredient listing. Wash off products have a lower limit as the product is intended to be rinsed off and the contact time on the skin is less.
As you see a lot goes into the ingredient listing of a product and the aim is supposed to be to inform the consumer what they are buying. If your product does not have that information on it, ask why? It is a legal requirement, so what are they hiding, or if they are not even aware of a basic requirement by law to sell a product, are you sure they know what they are doing making the product?