It's nice that every cosmetic product says what's in it. It would be even nicer if that were also understandable. How do you recognize herbal ingredients, dyes, fragrances and mineral oil products? And does the order matter? Find out how to crack the INCI code!
The INCI code - finally a clear view of the list of ingredients
How the INCI list helps to shop consciously
In order to better protect us from label fraud , all ingredients in cosmetics have had to be specified since 1997. The INCI list tells you whether and which oils, surfactants, dyes, aromas, mineral oil products or parabens are contained in cosmetics. Regardless of whether it is on the packaging or in a package insert, it must be complete. Incidentally, with mini-tubes, like those on the drugstore sample shelves, you can sometimes find the list on a label on the shelf.
The whole thing applies throughout the EU and follows fixed rules based on the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI). Many non-EU countries also follow the standard, for example we Swiss, because we usually sell our products in the neighborhood.
The INCI information as a ranking list
The higher up an ingredient is, the more of it the product contains. So the main ingredients are at the forefront . Here you can see straight away whether creams are based on mineral oil or vegetable oils and, in the case of cleaning products, which soaps or surfactants they use - more on this below.
Then there are the ingredients that are in smaller doses. A smaller amount of a questionable ingredient does not necessarily mean that it is less of a concern. A small dose is often enough to promote allergies or trigger skin irritation.
And then comes the 1 percent range. Ingredients that make up a maximum of one-hundredth of the recipe are at the very end, but can be listed one below the other in any order. However, you do not see where this area begins.
Technical jargon or internationally understandable?
Come on, let's go on a skiing holiday in our minds: First day on the slopes, but whoops, you forgot your sunscreen. So off to the pharmacy and you'll quickly notice other countries, other favorite brands - and your favorite isn't there. In order to make the whole thing internationally understandable, the ingredients are named in Latin or English, more on that later. On the one hand very practical, because uniform. On the other hand, you have to know the terms first. How it works? Read on!
How to decode the INCI list
Anyone who deals with the matter a bit may know how shea butter, coconut sides and natural perfume oils are called INCI. But then there are often abbreviations, numbers, and terms that are strongly reminiscent of chemistry class. As an Ottilie normal consumer, you get off quickly. Plain text would be helpful here . Unfortunately, only very few manufacturers also list all ingredients in German . We do this so you can understand what you're buying right away. In addition, there is nothing to hide with the FIVE products with a maximum of 5 ingredients.
Most INCI lists, on the other hand, leave you guessing which are synthetic dyes, preservatives, parabens, plastics, and so on. What used to be a plant and what gushed out of the oil well? The problem is that uncomfortable ingredients can easily be hidden behind scientific nomenclature . So let's clean up the different categories a bit...
Some avoid fragrances in general, others only like the natural ones and still others are allergic to certain of them. Either way, this category is particularly interesting for many customers. Instead of naming all fragrances individually, manufacturers are allowed to group them together under perfume , aroma or fragrance , since the scenting is often the secret of a product. And understandably, the manufacturers don't necessarily want to reveal that. At FIVE you will find the fragrances listed individually, as we usually only use a single essential oil and have no secrets anyway.
As described above, people sometimes react with an allergy to fragrances, whether chemical or natural. Therefore, potential allergens occurring in fragrances must generally be reported separately as soon as they exceed a certain amount. A distinction is made as to whether the product remains on the skin or hair (then from 0.001%) or is washed off (then from 0.01%) 1 . The list, which you can find on the website of the German Consumer Protection Agency, for example , contains all 26 synthetic and natural fragrances that you can be allergic to. They are not all generally unhealthy, just unsuitable for allergy sufferers.
☝️ One ingredient, several potential allergens - that's how it can work, because a single essential oil has up to 200 chemical components . The organic neroli oil for our Shea Cream naturally contains the nice-smelling but unfortunately also potential allergens linalool, limonene, farnesol and geraniol. That is why they are also listed individually at the INCI, usually at the end.
We make natural cosmetics here, so let's go back to how you can recognize natural fragrances . These are essential oils that are extracted from the leaves, flowers and wood of a wide variety of small plants. Conveniently, they also have a preserving function and some bring special skills with them, such as a disinfecting or mycotic effect. The most common natural flavors include citronellol, farnesol, geraniol, limonene and linalool.
🎨 CI+Number = Dye
CI stands for Color Index and the number roughly encodes the dye. For example, if you look at a lipstick, you'd expect it to have a lot of it in it. Sometimes some of these are in parentheses with a +/- in front of them or the note " may contain ". It means this dye can, but does not have to be included. Manufacturers do this on the one hand so as not to disclose the exact color mix, and on the other hand so as not to have to print a separate label for each color nuance.
Of course, natural cosmetics also cannot avoid coloring in the corresponding products. Otherwise a lipstick would just be a grease stick. Natural pigments from minerals or plant dyes are used here . Some of them are even really healthy. The reddish carotenes, for example, are also antioxidants. Please don't snack on the rouge anyway 😉 .
🌿 Identify herbal ingredients
We already knew that ingredients are given in either English or Latin. The botanical name is always given for herbal ingredients , i.e. Latin . Every plant has a double name, so to speak. The binary nomenclature names the genus first and then the subspecies. For example, the Damask rose is called Rosa Damascena . This is often supplemented by the type of ingredient (usually not Latin), i.e. oil , seed extract or something similar.
🛢 Silicones, plastics and other mineral oil-based substances
These candidates are difficult for laypeople to identify, not least because they are so diverse . Mineral oils and ingredients that are synthetically produced from them can be found in all categories, from fats and surfactants to various additives. Notorious, of course, the silicones. There is only one thing that helps here: deal with the terms .
Let's start with the usual suspects, which are usually high up in the list of ingredients and are usually behind:
- Terms containing paraffin and microcristalline
- Petrolatum - that's where the petroleum sounds.
When it comes to shampoo, shower gel and the like, surfactants are at the forefront. You can recognize those based on mineral oil by the designations Lauryl Sulfate or Laureth Sulfate . Attention, there is always another term in front of it ( sodium, magnesium, ammonium or something)!
In INCI jargon they are:
- methicones and dimethicones
- Substances with the endings -oxane/-oxane
- Polyquaternium - this is a silicone substitute with similar dubious effects.
Plastic can be found in just about any type of product , from lipstick to toothpaste . How do you recognize it?
- Pretty much anything with a "poly" in the name
- PET, PP or PEG
Now the question arises, where can I find a vocabulary trainer for ingredients? Honestly, if you're thinking about doing something like this professionally, it's not a bad idea at all. Otherwise, the following tips will help...
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Help with decoding the INCI
No more haphazard shopping, after all we want to make an informed decision. Unfortunately, this is not made easy for us. New ingredients are constantly being added, including some that are harmful to you and the environment. So three tips:
- natural cosmetics . Rely on really transparent products that simply contain few ingredients . Then it's easier to see the whole thing.
- INCI Apps . With the applications from Codecheck or haut.de you can easily check ingredients.
- A reading magnifier app . A joke? Only half. The INCI lists are often so incredibly small that even ants would need reading glasses.
Lots of input? Don't give up! After a short time, you usually have the most important terms at hand, even without constantly using the Internet. I just wish that you feel better informed from now on. Would you like to know more? You can find more information about many cosmetic ingredients under Our ingredients and bullshit substances .
Have fun while reading!