Understanding the ingredients list (INCI): basic guide - The Moisturizer
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Understanding the ingredients list (INCI): basic guide

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Have you ever had a look at the ingredients of your cosmetics? Do you know why they’re organized that way? Understanding the skincare products we use is key to give our skin what it really needs. If you don’t know the difference between an active and an excipient yet, this post is for you.


I’ve been wanting to talk to you about formulation and ingredients in cosmetics for a while. Don’t be scared, it will not be a complicated or technical post, but it will help you understand how cosmetics are made and how much the proportion of actives influences the result we seek. Although cosmetics can be very complex, I will try to explain the most basic things in a simple way so that you can choose your cosmetics more effectively.

The areas that you I will cover in this article are the following:




The European Union describes what a cosmetic is in Regulation 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and the Council, in which it states that a cosmetic product is “any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, protect­ ing them, keeping them in good condition or correcting body odours”. Here, as you already know, when I talk about cosmetics I mean the products that we apply to our skin to keep it healthy and protected, although you see that from a legal perspective the concept is much broader.

Even when we focus exclusively on those cosmetics that we apply to our skin, the variety is immense, there are cleansers, toners, essences, ampoules, serums, creams, etc. and it is not always easy to understand what to look for in each type of product, although there is something that can help you: the ingredients list.

All cosmetics must include on their label, without exception, the ingredients list (which is sometimes called INCI, which stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. It is aset of rules established in the United States in the early 1970s by the CTFA (Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association) to clearly regulate the way to denominate the different ingredients that those products incorporate. To date, this list has become an international standard with more than 16,000 registered ingredients. Reading the cosmetics labels is much easier thanks to the INCI.

The INCI rules are many, but some of the ones that interest us the most are the following:

  • The ingredients are ordered according to their proportion (from highest to lowest), although those ingredients with a proportion lower than 1% may be mentioned without a particular order. Thus, there is a greater amount of the first ingredients than the last ones (for instance, the first ingredient may constitute 70% of the final formula while the second can be the 10%), although this doesn’t mean there is a lower effectiveness. There are certain ingredients that cannot legally be introduced with a proportion greater than 1%, such as Phenoxyethanol, and that will allow you to know that the following ingredients in the list have the same proportion (or less). 
  • The names of the ingredients are mostly included in English, but they may be written in Latin or French as well ​​(that is why in many occasions we find examples like: Aqua / Water / Eau).
  • The direct derivatives of plants use nomenclature of the Linnaeus system (for example, Aloe barbadensis is aloe vera).
  • The manufacturer may request confidentiality for the exclusion of several ingredients from said list. 
  • The dyes may appear at the end of the list, without a specific order by means of the IC Code (for example, Blue No.1 would be CI42090).




Although nowadays much importance is given to the ingredients list of products (sometimes it’s easy to overfocus on that issue, something I will talk about a little later), it must be recognized that the composition is essential when it comes to understanding what a cosmetic can provide. Just like when we cook, the ingredients we use are key to determining the result we achieve. Since there is an immense variety of cosmetics that we can choose from, it is in our power to choose those that best suit what we are looking for.

Before I said that the list of ingredients can give us several clues about a cosmetic to find out what it can contribute. Although it may seem obvious, the first thing we must bear in mind is that if a cosmetic includes among its ingredients something to which we are allergic we must not use it.

Naturally, each ingredient in a cosmetic fulfills a specific function. In general, we can distinguish between three broad categories of ingredients: excipients, additives and active ingredients. I will try to explain to you in the simplest way possible what each of them is so that you never have doubts and can locate them more easily every time you take a cosmetic product.



The excipients are the base on which the product is developed, that is, the vehicle. Depending on the excipients that a product incorporates, it may be a cream, a gel, an emulsion, a foam, etc. Keep in mind that all products incorporate some type of excipient to have a specific consistence. The most common excipient is water (since it is cheap and harmless), although in the labels of cosmetic products we can usually find others such as glycerin, alcohol, acetone or silicones.



Additives are components that are incorporated into skincare products to achieve a better preservation or a more pleasant appearance. They are in charge of giving the products their scent and color, among other aspects. They are responsible for the products being soft, rough, gelatinous, sticky, light, etc. 

I want to stop and make a little reflection on a controversial issue that some brands take advantage of: the demonization of certain ingredients (such as parabens) that have a bad reputation despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it, something terrible on various levels. On the one hand, we must be critical and strive to learn in order to be able to distinguish what science advocates from mere marketing strategies. Additionally, actively avoiding certain ingredients that are safe encourages the use of others supported by less scientific evidence. Remember that the use of cosmetics is highly regulated and absolutely all the ingredients used are safe according to current scientific evidence (although the laws of different countries may differ from each other).



The active ingredients are the most important component of any skincare product. Simply put, they are the ingredients that give it its effectiveness. Of course, there are plenty of active ingredients and each one can help you cope with different concerns.Some of my favorite active ingredients are retinoids, vitamin C, exfoliating acids, peptides or niacinamide. At first it can be difficult to correctly identify these ingredients, but with a little practice you will know how to do it quickly.

In addition to the presence of these ingredients, you must take into account their proportion (in general, each ingredient provides its maximum effectiveness in specific concentrations), the way in which this ingredient is found, the other ingredients of the composition (since they can be enhanced between yes) or its global position in the ingredient list (although more is not always better, as we will see later). I know that all this may sound extremely difficult, but I assure you that having some basic notions is easier than it sounds.




Now that you have some general notions about the composition of cosmetics, you may be wondering if it would not be better to just use a single product that incorporates many active ingredients to improve all your skin concerns at the same time, something like a multipurpose cocktail. It must be borne in mind that developing a product is not easy, there are numerous factors that directly affect its efficacy and stability, so formulating a product requires great dedication.

In certain cases, we find products that have very long ingredients lists in which it is practically impossible not to get lost. This can be especially attractive when we do not have a certain knowledge about what each ingredient gives us and perhaps we are not able to appreciate that most of those ingredients can be there to improve texture, scent, color, conservation, etc. You have to take into account something very basic: a cosmetic with many ingredients isn’t necessarily a better product.

On the other hand, we can also find cosmetics with ingredient lists that seem to include, in a single product, everything we could look for: retinoids, peptides, antioxidants, exfoliating acids… However, the simple presence of certain active ingredients is not always enough for those ingredients to give us results, but they are sometimes incorporated into the composition to provide the image that the product is capable of helping you with all your concerns despite the fact that the presence of those assets are minimal. Keep in mind that many actives are especially unstable, so developing a product that incorporates one of them is already quite complicated.

That said, it must be recognized that certain brands do invest a lot of time and effort in researching and formulating cosmetics that are complex but perfectly stable and effective. I know that it is not easy to distinguish which products are the result of that dedication to research and formulation and which are a simple marketing tool, although in principle no brand with a scientific perspective will try to market their products as miraculous or as the only thing that you skin needs.

Finally, it must be taken into account that active ingredients are more effective when they are present at a certain concentration. There are many examples of this: retinoic acid is used in very low concentrations (sometimes lower than 0.025%), salicylic acid is most effective at a concentration between 0.5 and 2%, niacinamide provides its maximum effectiveness between 2 and 10%, etc. Although a priori a product with a high concentration of a certain active may seem striking, we must assess to what extent this will bring us a real result in comparison to a product with a lower proportion of the same ingredient.




I made a small reference to this fact earlier, that’s because today the ingredients list of different products is given great importance. I understand that, being something common to all cosmetics, it is easy to assess them based exclusively on this criterion, but although an ingredients list can give us a lot of information (and very valuable one, especially when we already have a certain knowledge on the subject), it shouldn’t be the only thing we look at to analyze a product. After all, a pizza is more than just the ingredients that make it up.

First of all, keep in mind that not all ingredients are the same. Depending on the supplier and the origin, the same ingredient may have a much higher quality than another with the same name. Although this is something that often escapes our knowledge, some brands strive to use quality ingredients that can be more effective than cheaper ones.

In addition to this, there are certain ingredients that can be incorporated into the formulas in different ways in order to get them to behave in one way or another when our skin absorbs them. An example is encapsulated retinol: although you will find it in the ingredients list as Retinol, when it is encapsulated it is less irritating and absorbed more efficiently.

On the other hand, although sometimes we simplify when talking about ingredients, there are some that we can find in many different ways. A simple example is vitamin C, which we can find as ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbyl phosphate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl palmitate, retinyl ascorbate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl glucoside, 3-O ethyl ascorbic acid, etc. Although we can refer to all of them as vitamin C (despite the fact that most of them are derivatives of it), each one has its own characteristics and being different doesn’t make them less effective or useful.

You see that there are many nuances that are beyond our control when we see an ingredients list and that can directly affect the result that we will observe on our skin. Sometimes manufacturers inform us about these aspects so that we are able to assess whether the product is exactly what we are looking for, but in other cases there is no way of knowing.

I am aware that in this article I have left many elements aside and that they also affect the use of a cosmetic and the effects it gives us, such as its pH, its durability or the sensations when extending it, but soon I will talk to you in more detail about this topics.

There is a key aspect that we should not ignore, and that is that in the end the only way to know if a product is right for you is by trying it. Although the ingredients list can provide you with a lot of information, it is by using the product that you are able to really appreciate how it reacts with your skin and if it truly meets your needs.

I want to conclude with an important reflection, and that is that cosmetics are much more than their ingredients: they are the sensations when opening the container and when applying the product on our skin, they are the result we observe, they are its ability to interact with other products, they are the relaxing ritual of doing our skincare routine, they are our ability to take care of our health and enjoy a moment to ourselves. Everyone’s skin is different, so in the end the most important thing is to use what works well for you.


Did you like this article and do you want to continue learning how to take care of your skin? Then you will be interested to take a look at these others:

Do you want to learn to take better care of your skin? You can see an index of all my informative posts here


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The Moisturizer

I’m Nacho and I’m passionate about skincare. I really enjoy learning and sharing my knowledge about skincare and I read scientific papers so you don’t have to. I want to break stereotypes because I believe skincare has no gender: skin is skin.  

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