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Which Are Better for an Ingredient List: Common Names or Scientific Names?

Like me, you have probably heard the saying, “If you can't pronounce it, it can't be good for you.” You may have even heard someone say “I will not buy a product that has an ingredient I can't pronounce.” With thoughts like these seeping into mainstream consciousness, it has become very confusing for beauty product consumers.

Scientific Names or Common Names

Many now feel that when they see common ingredients such as juniper, jojoba oil, or grape seed oil listed on the package, the product is probably better for them. Likewise, when they see scientific names like Juniperus communis fruit oil, Simmondsia chinensis oil, and Vitis vinifera seed oil listed as an ingredient on a product, they are more likely to avoid it.

The important factor here is that it is actually the law to list the ingredients using standardized INCI names. INCI stands for “International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients” and it has a list of names for waxes, oils, pigments, chemicals, and other ingredients found in everyday beauty products. The list of ingredients is based on scientific names, as well as, other Latin and English words.

INCI ensures transparency in cosmetic ingredient disclosure through the use of a standardized list, which is published and currently on its 11th edition. In the United States, however, it is still permissible to use the 2nd edition INCI edition of names as it remains the only edition that has ever been approved by the FDA.

It’s interesting to note that many INCI names in this 2nd edition are the same as their common name and, therefore, more familiar to the general public. It’s also important to note that US manufacturers can only use the 2nd edition INCI names for those products intending to be sold in the US. If they want to sell their products internationally (especially in the EU), they are required to use the latest edition.

The INCI names are important in that they can be used to distinguish between natural, synthetic and non-synthetic ingredients.

For example, when a company sells Rose Body Oil and chooses to advertise it with the slogan, “Scented with the most luxurious Bulgarian rose essential oils,” then you should have no problem finding Rosa damascena oil in the ingredients list on the package. If you find Rosa damascena extract, which comes from rose absolute (most likely solvent extracted), then you will realize that, though it is still real rose, it is less therapeutic than the essential oil. If you can't find Rosa damascena in the ingredient list but find the word fragrance instead, then the product is mostly synthetic and has no rose essential oil in it after all.

INCI names can be used to distinguish a toxic plant and a non-toxic plant from the same genus.

For example, there are many Sage species. The most common ones are: salvia officinalis, salvia sclarea, and salvia lavandulifolia. Salvia officinalis contains the toxic chemical thujone, while the latter two do not. Someone who is not familiar with scientific names may end up buying the common Sage (salvia officinalis) when they should be using Salvia sclarea in their beauty products. These two plants are not interchangeable but someone who is not educated with INCI names would not be aware of this. Now, imagine if that person decided to sell his/her handmade skincare products.

Scary isn't it?

Currently, there is a hot topic regarding fake Blue Tansy (Tanacetum annuum) essential oil. The prices have skyrocketed due to a shortage of Blue Tansy in the world. Several companies have been found selling adulterated Blue Tansy. One company, in fact, was found to be selling a “fake” Blue Tansy that comes from a completely different plant. The oil they extracted from the plant, Tanacetum vulgare, contains a high amount of toxic thujone (the same chemical found in Salvia officinalis above). Thujone has been reported to be toxic to the brain, kidney and liver cells and could cause convulsions if used in a high dosage.

Another example is Helichrysum, known as Immortelle plant. There are many Helichrysum species and the most popular one is Helichrysum italicum as it is the only Helichrysum plant that contains regenerative di-ketones that are excellent for scar treatment. Helichrysum italicum essential oil is expensive, therefore, a lot of companies choose to use the cheaper species, Helichrysum gymnocephalum, believing them to be interchangeable. Unfortunately, Helichrysum gymnocephalum does not contain di-ketones and it has completely different therapeutic properties.

Here are the prices of both plants from the same company:

15 ml Helichrysum italicum $227.75

15 ml Helichrysum gymnocephalum $23.16

Now, imagine if there are two companies. Company A and Company B. Both companies sell identical products.

Seller A uses Helichrysum italicum in the product with a list of ingredients:

Camelina sativa (Camelina) seed oil, Calophyllum inophyllum (Tamanu) seed oil, Tocopherol (Non-GMO Vitamin E), Helichrysum italicum (Immortelle) oil, Boswellia carterii (Frankincense) oil, Aniba rosaeodora (Rosewood) oil, Pelargonium graveolens (Geranium) oil, Cananga odorata (Ylang Ylang) flower oil.

Seller B uses Helichrysum gymnocephalum in the product with a list of ingredients:

Camelina oil, Tamanu oil, Vitamin E, Helichrysum, Frankincense, Rosewood, Geranium, Ylang-ylang.

Both companies sell the products for $45.

Which one would you buy from?

Can you see the difference now?

To summarize, all cosmetic ingredients have scientific names that many of us find hard to pronounce. These scientific names are used internationally and are required by law for the safety of the general public to ensure transparency in cosmetic ingredient disclosure.


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