How to Decipher Ingredients Labels

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How to Decipher Ingredients Labels

How many times have you been curious to know what’s in a product only to look at the ingredients list and feel like it’s in another language?

You're not alone. The fact of the matter is that those lists are in another language—at least on personal care products—and that language is called INCI. But before we get into the all-important skill of translating INCI, it’s important to understand how different types of products list (or don’t list) their ingredients.

Product Labels 101

Different product categories have different legal requirements when it comes to listing ingredients. It breaks down as follows:

  • Food - Legally required to list all ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight. This list is in plain English, so if there’s an ingredient that you can’t pronounce, it was probably made in a laboratory.
  • Cosmetics and personal care products - Legally required to list all ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight - except “fragrance” (aka “parfum”). Scents are considered trade-secrets and only need to be listed as “fragrance” despite often being made up of hundreds of other ingredients. Also, care product ingredients aren’t in plain English - they’re required to be in INCI.
  • Everything else (other than pesticides and pharmaceuticals) - No legal requirement to tell you exactly what’s inside.

What’s INCI?

The abbreviation "INCI" stands for "International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients." And it’s not in plain English because it’s an international system to standardize ingredients labels. So, Shea Butter becomes Butyrospermum Parkii Fruit and Jojoba Oil turns into Simmondsia Chinensis Seed Oil.

Luckily, since it’s an international standard and U.S. requirement, you can often find ample information about any of these ingredients online (just be sure to look for reputable sources!). Increasingly, manufacturers are trying to translate INCI ingredients directly on the labels like listing Shea Butter as “Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter) Fruit.” Also, some manufacturers have started listing detailed ingredients glossaries on their Web sites. (Watch for our awesome glossary coming soon!)

Understanding INCI makes one wonder: Why isn’t this same degree of standardized transparency applied to all product categories? Good question. The honest truth is most manufacturers don’t want you to know what’s inside their products because you probably wouldn’t buy them if you did know.

We think that’s a bad practice. That’s why we’re starting to use the same type of transparency that’s required on care products on all of our products.

Most recently, we updated our cleaning products labels and now list all the ingredients in INCI speak so our customers know EXACTLY what’s inside. The products are the same safe formulations, but we decided to go above and beyond labelling regulations because that’s what we want personally as consumers (and because we have nothing to hide).

The reason there are more ingredients listed than before is because coconut can be made into so many different chemicals. Just like old school chemists figured out how to make a staggering array of chemicals and plastics from petroleum (most of which we know now are linked to nasty environmental and health issues), the new breed of green chemists are able to take renewable sources like coconuts and make safer, eco-friendly updates on our most essential household products.

Hopefully our commitment to not only creating better products, but also to transparency and translating these things for consumers helps inspire other companies to do the same!

We aim to provide you with the most honest and credible information possible. This article was reviewed for accuracy by The Honest Team and was written based on trusted sources that are linked at the bottom of the article.

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