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The INCI list: A source of recurrent misconceptions about cosmetics

The list of ingredients that, by law, must be included on cosmetics labels is increasingly giving rise to fanciful interpretations and misunderstandings. It is seen as complex gibberish that is inaccessible to consumers because it is credited with virtues, qualities and informative significance that it does not have. In short, it is being called upon to provide something it cannot. People tend to make conclusions through ignorance, so let’s clarify the situation.

What information does the INCI list actually provide?

Its main role is to identify the ingredients and potential allergens in a product, unless they are trace elements. The purpose is to inform consumers of the presence of a substance in the product so that, if necessary, they can avoid any risk of allergies or irritation. This enables anyone sensitive to a substance to identify it in a product and choose an alternative that does not contain it. Of course, to be able to make use of this list of ingredients, a person has to establish which substances he or she must avoid by consulting a dermatologist or allergist who can provide the ‘INCI’ name of the substance to be avoided. Thus, this list is very important for the comfort and safety of certain consumers.
The language used to compile this list is an international standard specific to the cosmetics sector (also used for detergents): the INCI * standard. Standardising the names of ingredients (substances or blends of substances) in this way enables their identification on an international scale. The ingredients have the same INCI name all over the world which means they can be identified regardless of the language used on the label. This standard is for identification purposes only and does not provide any information about the properties of a chemical substance . Chemists apply the IUPAC names to qualify substances. This nomenclature is used to identify elements and chemical substances logically and systematically and to determine their main properties. Contrary to the imaginings of certain pressure groups, there is no need to ‘understand’ the INCI standard because, quite simply, there is nothing to understand! Unlike the IUPAC standard, INCI does not describe the substances but simply identifies them.

The ‘fantasies’ that stem from the list of ingredients

The most powerful misconception linked to the INCI list is that it provides toxicology information. According to this approach, a product is either toxic or not depending on whether or not it contains a particular substance. This is how apps like Yuka work. This is a toxicological aberration as a risk analysis is required by law to establish the toxicology of a cosmetic product. This analysis examines the quality of the ingredients, human exposure to them, their concentrations, the interactions between them, the frequency and conditions of use of the product and many other elements. In no way does the INCI list provide such information. The extrapolation carried out by the apps on the basis of the INCI formula is not substantiated by science and results in misleading information. This way of thinking constitutes real fraud based on the credulity of the average consumer.

The INCI list does not provide any information about the nature of the ingredients. As mentioned above, a substance’s properties can be extrapolated from its IUPAC name but not from the INCI identification, since the latter is not based on a systematic and logical approach. Moreover, the INCI name does not change according to the origin or nature of the ingredient. The same substance, whether it is fossil- or biomass-based, synthetic or natural, pure or contains impurities, will have the same INCI name. Believing that you can determine whether or not a product is vegan by reading the INCI list is fantasy.

Likewise, the INCI list does not provide any information about product quality. The number of ingredients does not determine the safety, excellence or efficacy of a product. Only a balanced and relevant quality formulation lends value to a cosmetic product, regardless of the number of ingredients it contains. Simplicity may be a virtue, but it says nothing about the quality of the product. Furthermore, as the list of ingredients neither qualifies the ingredients nor takes into account the creativity or the technologies involved, it cannot provide any information about the price of a cosmetic product. Certain overzealous parties would like to see a relationship between the INCI-identified ingredients and the status of the cosmetic product in terms of price and quality. Why do a ‘mass-market’ lipstick and a luxury lipstick which are only available through selective distribution channels have many INCI identifiers in common but are sold at significantly different prices? A comparison taken from the food sector could provide the answer! A spaghetti bolognaise in a snack bar on a street corner will cost less than a spaghetti bolognaise in a starred Italian restaurant even though the ingredients are the same (at least their INCI identification is, when referring to cosmetics ingredients). So, identifying the ingredients tells us nothing about the origin of delicious Italian tomatoes versus the industrial variety, about their ripeness, quality, taste, the talent of the chef, the creativity behind his recipe, the ‘magic’ of his restaurant, etc. The same argument applies to cosmetics. The INCI list provides no information about the quality of the formula, the quality of the finished product, its cost, the talent of the formulator, the brand image, etc. Thus, it is not surprising that two lipsticks, even sold at very different prices, have many INCI identifiers in common.

Stop this anxiety-inducing information

As we can see, the list of ingredients identified by the INCI standard fulfils a very limited function: it identifies the components of a cosmetic product on an international basis in order to ensure safety as regards personal skin sensitivity (allergy or irritation). No relevant information can be deduced from this standard. Consequently, it is highly detrimental to see many consumers and stakeholders interpret this list of ingredients and subsequently disseminate misleading information. It is high time that the cosmetics industry and the authorities established a framework to ensure the objectivity of the information provided for consumers, including that originating from third parties (such as cosmetics apps). In this respect, the current revision of the unfair commercial practices directive is an opportunity not to be missed.


27 september 2022