Death by INCI series: formulation myths - part 2 - skincare actives

Posted by Natasha Dauncey on

NB. I wrote a rather ranty series on various formulation topics and formulation myths on Instagram back in October 2019 and wanted to share them here. This is Part 2 (of a 4-part series). Enjoy!

Formulation myth: "ACTIVE ingredients should always be high on the INCI list" 🤦🏾

Each active and functional ingredient has an optimal percentage range and whilst some are high and should be expected near the top of an INCI list eg. niacinamide at 2-5% it's not always the case, as it totally depends on the active ingredient. A related myth I have seen is that when looking at a product, you should only consider the first 5 ingredients listed as the most important, as they make the bulk of the product (for those that aren't aware, ingredients must be listed in descending percentage of the overall formulation, except for ingredients listed under 1%). I have no idea where the idea of 5 ingredients even came from, it's not a magic number - there are no magic numbers when it comes to how many ingredients go into a good skincare product! So, this is plain wrong - and here's why. These are just some actives which are effective at low concentrations (there are plenty more!) and will therefore feature nearer the end of an INCI list:

  • salicylic acid maximum concentration is 2%
  • allantoin is effective at 0.1-1%
  • sodium hyaluronate is effective in formulations as low as 0.1-0.5% (though it's typically used in HA serums at around 1%)
  • retinal (not to be confused with retinol) is used UP TO 0.01%, a tiny yet extremely effective amount - so it will always be near the end of an INCI list 
  • retinol can only be used in formulations UP TO 1% (if you see a retinol product with > 1% they are misleading you in their labelling!) Incidentally, this shady business of inflating percentages of actives to make a product sound more impressive needs to stop! "2% retinol serums", "20% HA" serums and such like are just plain wrong.

So seeing an active ingredient near the end of an INCI list isn't necessarily a negative: it all comes down to the active in question! Whilst there may be instances of brands adding actives in sub-optimal amounts purely for claims purposes, I suspect this practice is becoming less common, as consumers start to better understand active ingredients (though it's now resulting in the other extreme of using too much of an active ingredient as a selling point of a product!). And of course, the concentration of the active isn't the only determinant of an effective product - remember, formulation matters!

Part 1, part 3, part 4

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