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Cosmetics Ingredients Close-Up

Some Help Please! Understanding Cosmetic Ingredients Lists

February 3, 2013

Hi everyone! It’s Sunday and what better way to spend today than share with you some resources on deciphering chemical ingredients in your cosmetics products!

As a beauty blogger, I often spend quite a bit of time looking up cosmetics ingredients and trying to figure out what they are, what they’re doing in a product and what potential risks they might pose to our health. But sometimes, I have doubts on how accurate and free of bias the information I find may be.

So I recently asked Colin, a cosmetic scientist who blogs at Colin’s Beauty Pages, what resources are available out there to help us understand more about the ingredients found in our beauty products.

Colin’s response came with an interesting anecdote about the cosmetics ingredients list that I didn’t even think about:

"First things first, ingredient lists aren't there for members of the public to do their own safety assessments.  They aren't even there to give beauty bloggers something to talk about during product reviews.  Their origins go back to the seventies and eighties and are the result of pressure from dermatologists.
Dermatologists could carry out patch tests on patients with allergies and determine what ingredients were causing the reaction. But there was no way for the patients to use this information because cosmetic formulations were a closely guarded secret.  So ingredient lists were brought in for the benefit of the small proportion of the population who are allergic to cosmetic ingredients. But as everyone uses cosmetics, although it is a small proportion it is still a large total number of people.  So it seems a reasonable thing to do.
Given that the large number of different names for chemicals confuses even chemists, it was agreed to compile a list of generally agreed names to standardise things and give the consumers a sporting chance of identifying their particular allergen.  These names were published in the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary, which is four thick volumes in size.  These are the names that you are legally obliged to use on your product." ~ Colin 

Cosmetics Ingredients Close-Up

Oh right. Now it makes sense. Ingredients lists aren’t supposed to make sense.

They were  put in place mainly for the benefit of people who have allergies to certain ingredients.

Anyway, since I’m not about to drop $350 on the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary (even though I know it would be such a page turner), he also mentioned the following resources:

European Union’s CosIng database which gives information on the names and descriptions of cosmetic ingredients, as well as their functions, restrictions and opinions on consumer safety. However, it’s not very easy to navigate and the information I’ve found on here are the barest of bones.

American Cosmetic Ingredients Review is a compilation of scientific reviews on cosmetic ingredients, but the information on here is very complex. I ran into technical and very bureaucratic flow charts. I also noticed that their search tool is not functioning properly. So I wouldn’t recommend this site for the average consumer or beauty blogger out there. In addition, there may be an inherent bias towards the cosmetics industry because of the way the review process is funded.

Cosmeticsinfo.org is actually a database that I’ve been making use of. It’s much easier to navigate and the information is more detailed and a lot easier to understand.  The information is based on the American Cosmetic Ingredients Review mentioned above.

I personally would like to include in this list the Skindeep Database by the Environmental Working Group because I have used it in the past. But there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this site because of what some have termed as “scare tactics.” Something that we won’t get into too much right now. Just take this site with a grain of salt if you use it.

My problem with all of these cosmetics ingredients databases is that they’re either really technical and/or there is a lot of controversy surrounding them.

Personally, what I would love to see is a database made for people who simply just want to know. What is this ingredient? What does it do? Is it okay to put it on my body?

I envision something like a Beauty Wikipedia, based on the open source model of Wikipedia. A cosmetics ingredients database that’s free for anyone to edit and add information to, as long as they cite reliable sources. Easy to navigate, and easy to understand. Why not?

I think it’s an idea that’s worth a thought.

What about you? Where do you go for your cosmetics ingredients information? And do you think that something like a Beauty Wikipedia could be a viable source of information, one that’s reliable and free of bias?