Follow us on our new Insta page »

How to read an ingredient list?

What an ingredient list does and does not tell you about a product?

If you love to read ingredient lists or have doubts about them, this guide is for you! What makes a trustworthy, correct ingredient list? What is the information you can decode from it? What are the limitations of ingredient lists? How to spot shady, incorrect ingredient lists?

Read on to become an ingredient list pro!

First: what does INCI stand for? What is the INCI name of an ingredient?

INCI stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. It is a huge list of standardised names for cosmetic ingredients published by the Personal Care Products Council. For example, the INCI name of argan oil is argania spinosa kernel oil, or the INCI name of table salt (yes, it is a common ingredient in cosmetic products) is sodium chloride.

How should an ingredient list look like (at least in the EU & US)?

Regulations are different from region to region and there are many details and nuances to them, but the two very basic rules in the EU, US and most other parts for the world are these:

Basic rule no 1: The ingredient list uses INCI nomenclature on its ingredient list

It sounds like a simple rule but we are shocked to see how many products uploaded to INCIDecoder do not follow it. We will detail the common problems with examples in the next section, but for now this is how a correct ingredient list looks like:

An ingredient list with INCI nomenclature [source]

Basic rule nr 2: Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight up to the 1% mark

The product contains most from the first ingredient, the second most from the second etc. up to the 1% mark. After the 1% mark, companies can list ingredients in any order they like. They typically move good sounding ingredients up and not-so-good sounding ingredients down, but that is a legal and ok thing to do.

There are some notable exceptions worth knowing about when it comes to the order of the ingredients:

How to spot shady, incorrect ingredient lists?

We will say this: we are shocked to see the amount of incorrect ingredient lists uploaded to our site. Sometimes it is just a small, honest mistake that can happen to everyone. We are not talking about that. We are talking about ingredient lists that show a total lack of understanding or disregard of how a correct ingredient list looks like.

If you see an ingredient list that resembles the examples below, we recommend you to run the other way! If a company cannot bother to put out a correct ingredient list why shall we trust their formulas?

We are working on a warning system for our site so that it becomes easier to spot shady ingredient lists, like in the examples below:

So, what can you tell from an ingredient list?

Let's assume, the ingredient list looks good and trustworthy. What can you decode from it?

What are the limitations of an ingredient list? Things you cannot tell

As useful as the ingredient lists are, the rumors that you cannot know everything from them are true. Here are some notable limitations:

So is it worth looking at the ingredient list at all?

There are limitations, yes. Formulation matters, yes. It is true that if Gordon Ramsey cooks a salmon it will taste better than the salmon we cook at home. But does that mean that it is not even worth bothering to look if we will eat a salmon or a steak? We certainly like to know it in advance!

The truth is, of course, in between. We have never met a single cosmetic formulator colleague who does not start by looking at the ingredient list when a discussion about a product comes up. The ingredient list does tell you a wealth of useful information if you know what to look for. And we try really hard here on INCIDecoder to help you with that!

If you are still here, thank you! We hope you will have a lot of fun decoding ingredient lists!