Behind, on the side, very small on the front of the package, but always there, and for good reason, it's mandatory: the list of ingredients!
At the regulatory level, it is called the INCI (pronounced INKI): International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. This list is often obscure. It requires the use of English and/or Latin terms. Its objective is to be understandable throughout the world, regardless of the manufacturer, the place of production or marketing of a product. It is a bit like the global language of cosmetics.
To make it clearer, here are some basics:
Beyond the rules of order, there is a whole language, mixing Latin and English. In general, natural extracts (plants, oils, ...) keep their Latin name followed by an English term specifying the part or the compound used.
For example, olive oil becomes Olea europea fruit oil, true lavender essential oil becomes Lavandula angustifolia oil while true lavender flower water becomes Lavandula angustifolia flower water.
It gets even more complicated when we saponify the oils. Olea europea fruit oil is transformed, under the effect of saponification, into Sodium olivate when soda is used and into Potassium olivate when potash is used. The same applies to all saponified oils and butters. Among the surprises, castor oil is called Ricinus communis seed oil but turns into Sodium castorate when saponified (here with soda). Nothing to do with the small animal builder/deconstructor, the castorate refers to the English name of castor oil: Castor oil.
You will also find, depending on the composition of the products, names of molecules, usually in English. Like Glycerin for glycerine, Sodium bicarbonate for baking soda, etc.
The fragrance compositions are found under the generic term "perfume". The disadvantage is that the term perfume is valid for compositions based on essential oils as well as for synthetic compositions. That's why a precision is often brought as for the natural origin of the said perfume. Sometimes, the use of a natural composition induces the presence of potential allergens, naturally present in essential oils. They must be indicated. They appear at the end of the list, their percentage being very low.
Depending on the products you use, you will find "CI lotsofnumbers", that is to say dyes, coded by five digits according to the Colour Index (hence the CI). If the dyes have no cosmetic use, they are harmless. It is sometimes their production method that is questionable. You can also find acronyms like PEG, SLS, EDTA,... the list would be too long. Again, they can be good, very good, bad, very bad.
If you have a doubt about an ingredient, many databases exist and can be consulted, especially on the net. The only one that is legal in Europe is the CosIng database. At first sight, it's not the most attractive... But it's formidable. It lists all the regulatory texts, studies on the components, lists all the ingredients with individual sheets, specifies their function, and above all, it is official, updated and free.
It was stated that the INCI reads in descending order. Does this mean that the ingredient at the end of the list is just for show, or that if the first ingredient on the list is water, you are being sold water disguised as a cosmetic?
No. But sometimes yes.
It all depends on the products, their overall composition and what they promise you. We know that these details will not help you much...
Let's imagine, you buy a moisturizing cream. The first ingredient is water. This is normal. Of course, it could be floral water or aloe vera juice, which are more precious but also more active. However, perhaps your cream already contains many active ingredients, or aims not to over-stimulate a sensitive skin. In short, the formulation has a balance. And as everywhere, the best is sometimes the enemy of the good.
Similarly, in our beard oil, bisabolol is at the end of the list. It is a very active extract whose percentage in a formulation is limited by regulation. If you exceed this limit, your product will fail the toxicological evaluation. This example applies to many products "with extract of" or with powerful active ingredients. Depending on the type of active ingredient and the type of product, it is normal (or even mandatory) that this active ingredient comes at the end of the list because, in principle, an active ingredient is very active! It must be carefully dosed.
However, if you are promised a product based on argan oil and argan oil is at the very end of the list, there is a problem. It is also problematic if the majority of the formulation is composed of very dubious ingredients and that appears at the end of INCI the natural extract so praised on the packaging. It's not the positioning of the extract that is problematic, it's its place in a formulation that doesn't do it justice. An honest cosmetic formulation is about balance and consistency.
Last line, we put into practice! Let's take the example of one of our soaps, the Wolf. At the beginning, its composition is relatively simple: vegetable oils and butter partly saponified, coal, chestnut flour and essential oils.
In INCI, it gives this:
Sodium olivate, sodium cocoate, sodium shea butterate, aqua, glycerin, sodium sunflowerseedate, sodium rapeseedate, sodium castorate, castanea sativa seed flour, perfume, olea europea fruit oil, butyrospermum parkii butter, cocos nucifera oil, helianthus annuus seed oil, brassica campestris seed oil, ricinus communis seed oil, charcoal powder, geraniol, limonene, linalool.
It contains saponified olive and coconut oils, saponified shea butter, glycerin produced naturally during saponification and water that remains after saponification. Then there are the saponified sunflower, rapeseed and castor oils, the chestnut flour and the essential oils whose mixture is modestly called "perfume". Then come all the oils and butter in their "unsaponified" version. That is to say that they were all introduced in surgras and remain in suspension in the soap: olive, shea followed by coconut, sunflower, rapeseed and castor. They are the same as those at the beginning of the list, it is just that we put more than necessary, so that the soap is ultra-soft.
And finally, come the charcoal and further on the compounds of essential oils potentially allergenic. Charcoal, which is highly active, is at the end of the list in terms of its power. Putting more of it in the soap means going from detox to polishing. Allergens are far behind but the INCI, in order to protect the formulas, does not allow to specify the percentages of the listed ingredients.
The INCI remains a mandatory list of ingredients, useful, informative but also indicative. It tells you what is in the product, informs you a little about the proportions but leaves enough vagueness and room for maneuver to the manufacturer to protect his formula. In short, the INCI, if you can decipher it, gives you the philosophy of a product. All you have to do now is buy a magnifying glass!