Death by INCI series, formulation myths - Part 1 - ingredient analyser apps

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 1 (of a 4-part series). Enjoy!

Formulation myth: "INCI lists / ingredient analyser apps can help you pick the right skincare"

I've noticed a growing use of apps/websites and bloggers that are dissecting or rating INCI lists as a means of evaluating whether a product is any good, which is concerning, however well intentioned they may be. I know why this is happening (though quite frankly there's no excuse!!). There's so much confusion about what makes an effective product, an increasing emphasis on active ingredients in formulations and the discourse around so called "toxic ingredients" creating unnecessary fear and making some question what's in cosmetic products. Consumers want to make the right choices and spend their money wisely. But how credible are these sources?

Most are oversimplifying what is a very complex topic (and I'll be the first to admit as a non-chemist myself that I don't have the same level of knowledge as a cosmetic chemist which is precisely why I work with one on my water-based formulations). Sure, if you know you're allergic to a certain ingredient or you are sensitive to fragrance allergens then certain apps may be useful - and let's remember - this is essentially the key purpose of having INCI lists on packaging, to inform consumers about ingredients they need to avoid due to allergenic issues. 

But the use of apps which attempt to dissect INCI lists usually goes beyond this, and one of the main issues I have with a lot of these analyses is that they don't take into account the fact that OVERALL FORMULATION MATTERS i.e. it's not just about individual ingredients, but the combination of all ingredients (active and inactive) and the concentrations used. For example, a certain preservative system might be used because it is effective within the pH range of the product. Or if you compare 2 acid products with 10% glycolic acid for example, you may have a totally different experience with them due to other aspects of the formulation (pH, free acid value, the presence of soothing/replenishing ingredients etc). An INCI list tells you nothing about how a product feels or smells. Then there is the frequent reference to "toxic or nasty" ingredients despite the fact they're considered safe under EU regulation (and let's face it, the EU is pretty conservative when it comes to their guidance on product ingredients). The concentration of an ingredient can make the difference between it being perfectly safe or problematic, but this is often overlooked and instead creates fear. Indeed there are well-known apps like EWG which have bred a lot of fear of certain ingredients, yet they take data out of context and use it to further their agenda. Apps like these have been widely disregarded by cosmetic science experts (i.e. cosmetic chemists who understand ingredients and formulation better than anyone else!).

Ultimately the only real way of telling if a product is going to work for you is to try it. That can make a skincare journey quite costly (at least initially) but by using ingredient analyser apps, you could be missing out on some very effective products!

So, in the rest of this series, I'll aim to tackle some of the formulation myths I keep seeing. 

Part 2, part 3, part 4

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