Skincare and Cosmetic Ingredients Explained

Greenwashing is way too common these days, with the goal of tricking us into believing that a product is better for us or for the environment or making you think a product is something that it’s not. 

The only way to really break through all the marketing hogwash is to understand how to decipher the skincare ingredients on product labels. 

This article is going to help you do just that. 

Welcome to your crash course in cosmetic label language and INCI names (INCI stands for the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients).

We’ve already introduced you to all the nasty crap manufacturers pop into their formulations, for a multitude of reasons (if you haven’t read that article, please make sure you learn all about those toxic skincare ingredients first).

The thing is, so much money goes into all those fancy-pants labels and packaging that it can be really hard to look past it. If it looks great it must be, right? 

Ingredients list found on the back of a cosmetic hand soap bottle.

That’s what they want you to think.


When you start looking at the (sometimes lengthy) skincare ingredients lists, they do feel like another language and are completely daunting. 

But as you get more familiar with them, I promise you will start to feel a bit more comfortable about recognising different ingredients. 

a list of skincare ingredients with INCI names

So here are a couple of tips to start off…

1. Start by understanding INCI names 

Most of the ingredients lists you read on skincare or cosmetic labels are made up of INCI names. As I’ve already said, INCI stands for International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient. It’s an internationally recognised scientific naming system for cosmetic ingredients.

INCI names are developed by the International Nomenclature Committee (INC) and published by the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC).

Here’s the important part: Just because an ingredient has an INCI name doesn’t mean it’s been approved for cosmetics or skincare. Having an INCI designation does not mean it’s safe or compliant.

Read on to get a list of websites that check skincare ingredients by their INCI names. 

2. Know how to spot the nastiest skincare ingredients!

I run a mile when I see compounds like fragrance, sulphates, PEG compounds, phthalates, parabens and a few others on the label.

 Check out our previous blog about skincare ingredients to avoid and simply pop the product back on the shelf if you spot any of these nasties. 

3. Plant based ingredients tend to be easy to spot.

They’re listed either as their common name (which sounds like a plant in English, for example Calendula flower or Burdock root) or using their scientific name, which is almost always a two-word Latin name like Eucalyptus radiata (Eucalyptus) or Centella asiatica (Gotu Kola).

4. Ingredients that you cannot pronounce aren’t always harmful.

I have read quite a few blogs that state that if there are ingredients listed that you cannot pronounce, you should be wary; this is often the case but not ALWAYS true.

There are plenty of natural/plant-derived skincare ingredients that do still have science-y sounding names. Again, the more you practice and get familiar with different ingredients, you quickly learn which are A-OK. 

An example is tocopherol, which is simply Vitamin E, or panthenol, which is pro-vitamin B5.

Others like cetearyl alcohol and sorbitan olivate are naturally-derived molecules used to stabilise and emulsify ingredients. These more than likely contain palm but that’s for another blog!

5. The bulk of a skincare product is usually made of the first 5 or 6 listed ingredients.  

The order in which the ingredients are listed indicates the relative amount of that ingredient in the product. The most abundant ingredient is written first, the least abundant last. 

Important note: When water is the first ingredient, you can assume it comprises around 60-90% of the whole product. That can be some expensive water you’re buying! 

Another note: Just because an ingredient is present in lower amounts, doesn't necessarily mean that it is not effective. For example, niacinamide is known to be effective at around 5%, hyaluronic acid at 0.5-1.5%. 

Ingredients present at less than 1% can be written in any order, generally found at the end of your ingredients list. But there may be lots of them!

6. Allergens should be listed at the end of the ingredient list. 

Allergens are usually components of essential oils or synthetic fragrances. It is worth becoming familiar with some of these, particularly if you have sensitivities. Here’s a full list of allergens

It is wise to also look out for the following common allergens: 

  • Some detergents (Sodium Lauryl & Laureth Sulphate, SLS and Cocamidopropyl betaine have been known to cause reactions)

  • Fragrance/ Parfum (blanket term used for a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals that don’t have to be disclosed and could come from a pool of around 3000 different compounds)

  • Preservatives (Phenoxyethanol, Benzyl alcohol and Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate have been shown to be allergens)

7. Be wary of abbreviated lists. 

Some websites showcase the ‘key ingredients’ rather than the full list, which you have to search a little deeper for. By law, at the time of purchase, either in real life or online, the full ingredients list MUST be available to the consumer.

So now you’re armed with these tips, it’s time to look into the actual ingredients themselves — with the help of some handy skincare ingredients checkers. 


There are plenty of resources to turn to while you’re learning the ropes of what ingredients are, why they’re in the product, and whether you need to steer clear of them. 

Finding your favourite skincare ingredients checker is key. Here’s a really useful list:

EWG Skin Deep

The EWG Skin Deep skincare ingredient dictionary is my go to. It’s super simple to use, gives you a colour-coded grading, and indicates what type of hazard the ingredient might be. 

It also tells you the function of the ingredient as well as synonyms that can be really useful. 

The best bit is if you geek out on the science like I do, it offers references for further investigation.

INCI decoder

The INCIDecoder is another useful searchable database. 

Think Dirty 

The Think Dirty app allows you to type in a product name or scan barcodes and you get a rating for each of the product's ingredients clarifying if and why they are considered toxic. 

Note that some Aussie brands or small boutique brands might not be on their database. 

You can also search for individual ingredients. Unlimited access to all ingredients comes at a cost of $4.80/ month or $45/ year but you can try it out for 1 week free. 

INCI Beauty

The INCI Beauty app allows you to scan barcodes (handy if the product is on the database) or search for a product or an ingredient. It then breaks down all the ingredients, outlines whether they're good, not so good, or satisfactory, and gives an overall score. Premium features have a cost of 15 Euro per year.

Chemical Maze Shopping Companion

The Chemical Maze Shopping Companion is a searchable and pretty easy-to-use app that includes ingredients found in both food and cosmetics. It does cost $11 but well worth it, I think.


The way I’ve learnt how to read labels is by learning bit by bit and researching suspect ingredients as I find them. You will start to recognise and remember them and will find yourself much more confident when deciphering a label. 

Here is the ingredient list for the Youth To The People Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream, which is a relatively clean product with just a few questionable ingredients included:

A list of skincare ingredients for Youth To The People Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream with colour coded arrows explaining the various INCI names


One of the most important things when shopping clean is to sidestep all the marketing drivel on the packaging skilfully devised to suck us in. 

I mean sure, active ingredients are included for a reason, but not all the claims made are true.

Companies can use words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ on their label (there are no laws preventing this if it’s not true); there is very little transparency when it comes to cosmetic product labelling. 

Accomplished marketers can highlight the 'amazing' skin-loving benefits of included skincare ingredients that unfortunately are often found in such small quantities that they really aren’t going to do anything at all. 

Ah marketing… it makes suckers of us all!

Learning about the different skincare ingredients may seem daunting at first but I promise that the knowledge you will gain is well worth it. 

Once you start learning about skincare ingredients and potential toxins, you'll start seeing why natural skincare is better and be ready to go clean. 

Ready to go clean? Shop our range of toxin-free, zero-waste natural skincare products today.

 Tammy x

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