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What are xenohormones and should we be worried about them in cosmetics? This week we talk about the alleged dangers of estrogen and other endocrine disruptors in beauty products.  

Click below to play Episode 39 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Beauty Science News – The case of the stolen body parts

Stolen hair and skin – who would have thought that beauty body parts would be the target of theft?

Question of the week: Are endocrine disrupting hormones dangerous in cosmetics?

Melissa asks…I’m interested in your take on the Suzanne Somers organic skincare and cosmetic line. As a recent breast cancer patient I would like to know if you think we should be concerned about xenoestrogens and are her products or any other nontoxic type of products hype or really worth taking a look at?

What is the endocrine system?

The endocrine system is responsible for controlling biological processes such as metabolism, blood sugar levels, growth and function of the reproductive system, and the development of the many organs.

It has three parts:

1. Glands are organs like the thyroid, testes and ovaries that secrete specific chemical substances called hormones.

2. Hormones which are chemicals that stimulate cells or tissues into action. For example, there’s estrogen which regulates menstrual cycles.

3. Cell receptors that pick up the signal from the hormones and trigger a response. Estrogens (for example estradiol) are a group of steroid compounds, named for their importance in the menstrual cycle and function as a primary female sex hormone.

The problem is that certain chemicals can mimic the effects of hormones and interfere with normal operation of the endocrine system.

Xenohormones and endocrine disruptors

Chemicals that can “fake out” cell receptors are known as Xenohormones. These are a group of either naturally occurring or artificially created compounds with hormone-like properties.

The most commonly occurring xenohormones are xenoestrogens. (And, by the way, there are also xenohormones that mimic other hormones such as xenoandrogens and xenoprogesterones.)
Xenoestrogens are often referred to “environmental hormones” or “EDC” (Endocrine Disrupting Compounds).

There seems to be overlap in definition I think all xenohormones can be EDCs but not all EDCs have to be xenohormones.

Here’s the EPA’s definition:
An EDC is “an exogenous agent that interferes with synthesis, secretion, transport, metabolism, binding action, or elimination of natural blood-borne hormones…”

So what are these EDCs?

They can be either synthetic or natural. Some synthetic examples include …
Industrial solvents/lubricants and their byproducts [polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), dioxins], materials used in plastics like bisphenol A (BPA)] and phthalates), a variety of pesticides and even some pharmaceutical agents.

For natural chemicals…examples include phytoestrogens (genistein and coumestrol).

5 Reasons studying EDCs are problematic

You might wonder then, if EDCs are so bad, why are they still used in ANY product, not just cosmetics. The answer is that the science is very complicated and we don’t really know yet which compounds are REALLY a problem. In fact there are 5 reasons why this is so complicated.

1. Age at exposure
2. Latency from exposure
3. Importance of mixtures
4. Nontraditional dose-response dynamics
5. Transgenerational, epigenetic effects

EDCs in cosmetics – what are they and how bad are they?

There are a handful of chemicals that are of concern in cosmetics related to endocrine disruption. I’ll list the important ones and give you their status.

First, recognize that there are probably 6 different common phthalates – Some of these have shown up as contaminants in blood samples and are believed to produce teratogenic or endocrine-disrupting effects. For this reason, the European Union has categorized dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate as Category 2 reproductive toxins. In the US, the FDA has moved to restrict the use of DEHP and DBP in pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Both the FDA in the US and the SCCP in EU agree that there’s no clear data that the use of these ingredients in cosmetics pose a measurable hazard to consumers. The FDA is continuing to monitor the situation while the EU has taken a more conservative approach and decided to limit the use of some phthalates to only trace levels. From a regulatory perspective, the EU now has three categories for phthalates:

Accepted phthalates: This one is considered safe for use in cosmetics: DEP
Banned phthalates: These are banned from being added to cosmetics but are allowable as “trace contaminants” up to 100 ppm: DEHP, DBP and BBP.
Unregulated phthalates: These have not been regulated in EU but given their low usage (at least in perfumes) there is no quantifiable risk to consumers: DMP, DIBP, DCHP, DINP and DIDP.

Most recent data shows that when used at designated levels (around 0,2%) they are safe, particularly Methyparaben which is the most commonly used. insert reference.

Bisphenol A (or BPA)
There is data showing BPA is hazardous but it’s only used in packaging not as part of any cosmetic ingredient.

Dioxin vs 1,4 dioxane
Dioxin is an EDC but not found in cosmetics. Comes from pesticides, industrial manufacturing. 1,4 dioxane is found in cosmetics as a contaminant from surfactant manufacture. At certain levels it has been shown to be carcinogenic but the industry regulates the amount to make sure it’s at a safe level. http://cosmeticsinfo.org/HBI/32

Now as I said, some of these EDCs are naturally occurring compounds
For example, plant estrogens (also known as phytoestrogens) found in soybeans and other foodstuffs have been shown to have weak endocrine activity. However, the estrogenic activity of these materials, as measured under laboratory conditions, is generally far below that which is observed for estradiol – the naturally occurring form of estrogen in the human body. In addition, the levels at which these ingredients with potential hormonal properties occur in cosmetic and personal care products is significantly below levels that have been associated with the laboratory demonstrated endocrine activity.

Vitamin E
Some studies say this is an EDC while others say it protects against EDCs. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16182432

And finally Tea Tree oil and Lavender oil http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17575592 have been shown to mimic estrogens and a few years ago there was a case reported where a couple of boys developed gynomastia (they grew breasts) after using products tea tree and lavender products.

But after a closer look at the data, it appears there’s nothing to be concerned about – for a thorough breakdown of this case check out the link:


So it seems like the EDCs which are of most concern in cosmetics really aren’t that concerning after all…Of course the debate still rages on.

EDCs in cosmetics: Two sides of the story

Play it safe and act now
Some people take the stance that we should play it safe and act not. They say that…
We don’t know if there are a safe exposure levels.
We don’t know if there’s a synergistic effect with mixtures of ingredients
It can take years for effects to show up and by that time it’s too late

So, if there’s even the slightest risk why not completely get rid of the right now? (Some people call this the Precautionary Principle)

Get more data so we can make informed decisions
Others say we should collect more data so we can make more informed decisions.
According to CosmeticsInfo, this topic is very controversial and is currently under-investigation by scientists in many countries. Right now the best science says that “Although a variety of chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine system in studies of laboratory animals at very high doses and in some populations of fish and wildlife, there is no convincing evidence that ingredients used in cosmetic and personal care products cause endocrine disruption in humans.”

There are two reasons we meed more data:
1. We can’t do everything at once. We should focus on the chemicals that have been proven to be a high risk. For example, we should prioritize efforts to remove EDCs from foods before cosmetics.
2. Let’s not accidentally make things worse. There are lack of good alternatives (for example, we don’t have any preservatives that works as well as parabens, so getting rid of them may cause other more pressing issues (like contamination leading to infections.) Also, we don’t have good alternatives that have better safety profiles. Don’t want to exchange a potential EDC for a known carcinogenic compound.

Also, for what it’s worth, historically once the cosmetic industry has had clear data that an ingredient is harmful, it has moved quickly to removed it. Numerous colorants, hexachlorophene, certain preservatives.

So called “Organic” or “Green” products are not necessarily the answer

Melissa also asked if the SS line and other “non-toxic” products are worth taking a look at. Unfortunately, Just because a product is labeled “organic” or “green” doesn’t guarantee that it is better.

First of all, since there’s no standard definition you don’t REALLY know whether or not you can believe a company when they tell you their product is green. For example in a 2011 study researchers found that in terms of the number of “hazardous” chemicals, the “green”-labeled fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products.

I also found a study that tested over 200 products and compared “regular” products to “green” alternatives and found EDCs in both.

And, here’s an example from the SS line: Her product line is “organic” and certified as “Toxic Free” yet it contains tea tree oil which is a known EDC. (I’m not saying it’s proven to be dangerous but it is proven to be an EDC so why would they include that?)

You have to be very skeptical of HOW green products are different. It’s just not enough to be told “they’re organic.”

Substitute products may involve trade-offs in performance.

Here’s another factor to consider, choosing substitute products is complicated because there are likely to be trade-offs in performance.

For example, let’s look at a couple of the Suzanne Somers’ products which Melissa mentioned:

Her Organics Defining mascara is based on simple plant extracts and waxes rather than polymers which means it’s more likely to flake, smear and so forth.

Her Organics Ageless Serum uses a vitamin C derivative that doesn’t convert well to ascorbic acid and it doesn’t contain anything else proven to work for anti-aging. (such as retinoids or niacinamide)

Her Organic Nourishing shampoo is based on Decyl glucoside but it’s $20 for 8 ounces. Rinse off products are even less an issue due to lower exposure so probably not the place to waste money.

The point is, if you’re that concerned about product safety and you’re willing to pay a lot more money for products which CLAIM to be safer, then you deserve to know that these products will work differently.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

When it comes to learning which cosmetic ingredients pose a risk as an EDC, pay attention to legitimate scientific sources rather than fear mongering groups.

Consider what your personal risk factors are. Are you pregnant or likely to become pregnant soon? Then you may have a higher level of concern about potential effects upon your reproductive system.

If you do decide to look for alternative products then do your research. Learn what’s really in the products you’re considering and find out what trade offs in performance you might expect. That way you can make an informed decision.

But at the end of it all: If you’re really concerned about EDCs and don’t mind spending more money and potentially sacrificing performance, to avoid an undefined risk then MAYBE these alternative products are a good option for you.



Dodson RE, Nishioka M, Standley LJ, Perovich LJ, Brody JG, Rudel RA. 2012. Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-Associated Chemicals in Consumer Products. Environ Health Perspect 120:935–943; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1104052


Diamanti-Kandarakis E et al. 2009 Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement. Endocrine Reviews 30(4):293-342


LIL buy it now button

Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.


Pros and cons of cosmetic surgery

Did you know that fat transfer is the 8th most popular cosmetic surgery procedure? Did you know that Botox or dermal fillers can be administered by anyone, even if they don’t have proper training? (At least in the U.K.) Did you know that botched Botox injections can cause speech and breathing difficulties?  Yikes!

Those are just a few of the interesting tidbits I found in this info graphic on cosmetic surgery.
Cosmetic Surgery Claims
Original source of information about cosmetic surgery compensation claims: Blackwater Law


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Beauty Science News – July 13

It’s time again for the best beauty science news stories of the week…



OZ Naturals Vitamin C Serum – Look at the label

OZ Naturals Vitamin C Serum is the number one best selling beauty product on Amazon this week. Let’s look at the label to see how it works.

As you can see below Amazon only lists “key” ingredients whichs always makes us suspicious. We’d like to see ALL the ingredients in the formula! Having said that, our main concern is that the product uses the Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate form of Vitamin C which has been proven less effective (but also less irritating) than true Vitamin C.  There’s only limited ex vivo animal testing which shows it penetrates skin. There is no data showing it converts to ascorbic acid (which is the active form.) There is human in vivo testing showing it protects skin from UV but it is less effective than ascorbic acid. There is in vitro testing showing it boosts collagen production but it’s less effective than the magnesium version. Finally, it reduces skin pigmentation but only in in vivo testing. This may not be a bad product but it’s also not likely to be one of the best.

OZ Naturals ingredients

Key ingredients are as follows: Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (Vitamin C), MSM, Vegan Hyaluronic Acid, Witch Hazel, Vitamin E, Amino Complex, Jojoba Oil.

You don’t have to buy this OZ Naturals product but please use our link to buy ANYTHING on Amazon and you’ll be helping to support the Beauty Brains. Perry and I appreciate it!


Tame Cream Rinse – vintage cosmetic video

This commercial is noteworthy for several reasons. There’s the inanely catchy “Defrizz the Frizzies with Tame” jingle. And there’s the before and after demo which barely shows any reduction in frizz at all. Then there are the deliriously happy models who, despite their frizzy hair, seem more than content to pet puppies and toss their hats in the hair.

The beauty science bit is that, even back in ’70s, Tame used “cationic conditioners” to defrizz hair. Cationics are positively charged so they stick to the damaged spots of hair which have a negative charge. Along with silicones, these are some of the most powerful conditioning agents are are still in use today.


Does oily skin really overproduce sebum when dehydrated?

NOTE: Click here to read the follow up post on sebum regulation.

Al4galm asks…I have read many blogs, articles, etc that claim that oily skin produces more oil when is dehydrated. Is it true?
None of them reference studies.

The Beauty Brains respond: 

None of them referenced studies???  I’m tempted to report the bastards to the United Federation of Beauty Bloggers! Seriously though, if you do find a beauty blog that documents its sources of information you should bookmark it and sleep with it under your pillow! But back to your question…

The science of sebum

The answer lies in how sebum production is regulated – in other words what turns the sebum glands on and off. It’s not the presence or absence of moisture that triggers the production of oil, it’s the presence of sebum on the surface of skin. According to a study published in the Archiv für dermatologische Forschung, researchers stripped oil off skin and then measured how long it took the skin to re-oil itself. Their data indicates that the presence of oil on the skin’s surface sends a signal to the sebaceous glands to turn off. This signal is caused by either the pressure of the oil in the follicle or by the creation of a chemical signal that travels back down through the skin.

So it looks like it’s the amount of oil on the skin and not the degree of dehydration that determines how much oil the glands produce.


Is Sea Buckthorn oil good for skin?

Kashish’s question…My sister is using some products from Seabuck Essence and she is getting very good results. I wanted to ask that is anyone else also trying this product and shall i use it? She told me that its made up of Seabuck Thorn, a herb which is very good for human body.

The Beauty Brains respond:

Sea Buckthorn is used by a few brands including Sibu Beauty (who’s website includes more information that Seabuck Essense’s). But is it really good for skin?

What is Sea Buckthorn?

You can read all about Sibu Beauty’s Sea Buckthorn Nourishing Facial Cream here. Sea Buckthorn (technically known as Hippophaë rhamnoides) is a berry grown in the Himalayas and the website points out that it’s known for being rich in a number of bioactive compounds including the following:

  • Vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D, K, & P
  • Omega 3, 6, 7 & 9
  • 42 Lipids
  • Organic Acids
  • Amino Acids
  • Folic Acid
  • Tocopherols
  • Flavonoids
  • Phenols
  • Terpenes
  • Tannins
  • 20 Mineral Elements

But the key question is, is there any research showing what this stuff does for skin?

Sea Buckthorn science

Sibu’s website brags about the “130 modern scientific studies that have found that this berry promotes health.” And it’s true that there are many studies showing this berry has health benefits when ingested. Here are a few examples courtesy of PubMed:

  • A placebo-controlled, parallel study showed that eating 5 grams of sea buckthorn every day for 5 months increased certain skin lipids in patients with atopic dermatitis. (The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry )
  • Oral intake of sea buckthorn fruit prevented UV radiation-induced skin aging in hairless mice  (Int J Mol Med.)

There are enough studies like this to indicate that chowing down on this stuff might not be a bad idea. But what does it do when applied to skin?

The skinny on sea buckthorn

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much research done on the effects of this super fruit on skin. We could only find a few relevant studies:

  • Topical application of a concentrated form of Sea Buckthorn (1% of the flavone) did show improvement in wound healing. (Mol Cell Biochem.)
  • The seed oil also apparently has light absorption properties and has promise as a UV skin protectant. (J Agric Food Chem. )
  • And finally, we read that it can help boost collagen production (Journal of applied cosmetology ) We’re a bit skeptical about this one because was no control vehicle included in the study so it’s impossible to tell if the effect is from the oil or just from other ingredients in the cream.

Still, over all, there’s enough evidence here to suggest that this ingredient is promising.

So is the product a miracle or not?

Even if topical Sea Buckthorn oil is good for skin does that mean Sebu’s Nourishing Facial Cream works? The company doesn’t present ANY research on their own product to prove efficacy so all we can do is look at the ingredients which are listed below. As you can see, Sea Buckthorn oil is the second ingredient which probably means the cream contains at least a couple of percent of the oil. Theoretically that’s enough to provide a benefit. Beyond that we can’t really say. And it’ll cost you about $20 for 1 ounce to try this “miracle” for yourself.

Sebu Beauty Sea Buckthorn facial cream ingredients

Water, Sea Buckthorn Seed Oil, Glycerin (Vegetable), Sodium Levulinate, Sodium Anisate, Polyglyceryl-10 Pentastearate, Behenyl Alcohol, Sodium Steroyl Lactylate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Olive Oil Unsaponifiables, Meadowfoam Seed Oil, Shea Butter, Sea Buckthorn Fruit Oil, Orange Essential Oil, Lemon Essential Oil, Aloe Barbadensis leaf juice powder, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Xanthan Gum, Panthenol, Sodium Phytate

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Sea Buckthorn seed oil does contain a number of components that may benefit the skin. A few legitimate scientific studies indicate the oil may improve would healing, protect against UV radiation, and increase collagen production. And based on the ingredient list the Sebu Beauty product may contain enough of the oil to be effective.

Three “mays” do not make a miracle but there’s enough here that might make this product worth a try if you have an extra $20 to spend.


In this week’s episode Perry and I talk about the Think Dirty app that claims to help you identity dangerous ingredients in your cosmetics. Plus another game of Beauty Science or Bullsh*t!

Click below to play Episode 38 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Beauty Science or Bull Sh*t – a special bacteria-based episode

Another special themed version – this time it’s about bacteria. Guess which of the following 3 beauty science headlines are fake? (2 are real, one is made up.)

  1. Your nasal bacteria may predict if you’ll get a skin infection.
  2. Rural bacteria can help improve city dwellers’ health
  3. Bacteria unique to house pets have been found as a contaminant in cosmetics

 Beauty Science News

Would you wash yourself with bacteria?
You rinse your skin with water and then apply a live bacteria mist to keep your body clean. Theoretically the good bacteria colonize your skin and prevent the bad bacteria from growing. The chairman of the company that makes this products only uses soap once or twice a month.

The “Think Dirty” App shows which products have toxic chemicals
This “Think Dirty app uses data from scientific studies conducted by non-profit organizations and government agencies to fill in some of the blanks from the labels of cosmetic products.

This article is a bit one-sided, to say the least. If you really pay attention to the scientific literature you’ll see that cosmetic ingredients such as these are not likely to cause you much harm. You’re WAY more likely to get cancer from drinking alcohol, smoking, or just hanging out in the sun.

Here are a couple of quick rebuttals for those of you who are interested in a balanced discussion:

In all these cases the dose makes the poison. At high levels (as in some hair straighteners) formaldehyde is dangerous but when released at very low levels from preservatives it is not an issue.

The amount of lead in lipstick is VERY small, not much of it is ingested, the amount that is ingested is not absorbed well by your body, and the amount that is absorbed is processed and excreted. Your body can get rid of far more lead than you consume from lipstick. (Instead you should worry about lead paint or contaminated soil instead.)

The evidence seems clear that certain (but not all) phthalates pose a health hazard. But does that hazard mean there’s a risk involved in using phthalates in cosmetics? (Remember that the risk is a function of the hazard AND the degree of exposure.) Both the FDA in the US and the SCCP in EU agree that there’s no clear data that the use of these ingredients in cosmetics pose a measurable hazard to consumers. The FDA is continuing to monitor the situation while the EU has taken a more conservative approach and decided to limit the use of some phthalates to only trace levels. From a regulatory perspective, the EU now has three categories for phthalates:
▪ Accepted phthalates: This one is considered safe for use in cosmetics: DEP
▪ Banned phthalates: These are banned from being added to cosmetics but are allowable as “trace contaminants” up to 100 ppm: DEHP, DBP and BBP.
▪ Unregulated phthalates: These have not been regulated in EU but given their low usage (at least in perfumes) there is no quantifiable risk to consumers: DMP, DIBP, DCHP, DINP and DIDP.

The most comprehensive study was published in 2011 which determined that Methylparaben and Ethylparaben were safe when used at approved levels (0.4% individually & 0.8% combined). Since these are the two most commonly used parabens cosmetic chemists still have good formulation options. They took some more time to look at butylparaben and propylparaben. And the latest SCCS opinion…these are safe when used at the suggested concentrations of 0.19% or less.

Yes, these surfactants can be drying to skin – but so is soap! And the manufactures of these ingredients have limited the trace levels 1,4-Dioxane so there is no need for concern.

The point is that toxicology of cosmetic ingredients is a VERY complicated subject, even for industry veterans like us. To think that all that information can be distilled down to a simple app is naive and unproductive.

Olfactory exposure to men stresses out lab animals
Are lab animals really stressed out by the scent of “gonadally intact” men? What does this mean for all the scientific research done on rats and mice?

Crazy about caffeinated shaving cream
I spotted an annoying new product from The Pacific Shaving Company. It’s caffeinated shaving cream! Here’s what they say about it: “Actually, when it comes to caffeine, the women are ahead of the men. Caffeine is already a “go-to” ingredient in everything from eye creams and anti-aging lotions to concealers and moisturizers. It just hasn’t found its way into the shaving world – until now!

And the reason this is so important to include in skin care is that “It can penetrate skin and absorb into your blood: Start your morning with a kick!”

The real kicker is that if you look at the kinetics of percutaneous caffeine absorption you’ll see that there’s no way this could work.

The diffusion rate for caffeine through human skin is 2.2 x 10-6 grams per centimeter squared of skin, per hour.

So the area of your face that gets shaved is about 100 square centimeters?

That means your skin could absorb up to about 0.2 mg caffeine/hour

Do you know how many mg of caffeine are in a cup of coffee? 100-200.

So for your skin to absorb enough caffeine to “kick start” your morning you’d have to leave this shaving cream on your face for about 1000 hours. That’s assuming it’s even dosed appropriately.

Unpleasant odors makes you more conservative
Here’s a study that says exposure to a disgusting odor makes you more politically conservative (on subjects like sex and gay marriage.)

Scientists develop way of making UV protection visible
Even though we don’t understand this very well we like this idea of a device that can predict how much sunscreen you need based on the amount of UV radiation that you’re exposed to.

More feminine looking women are more likely to win political office
Perry’s on a political roll today and he thinks that wearing cosmetics can help you win elections.


LIL buy it now button

Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.

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Understanding cosmetic ingredient names

I must confess. One of my favorite things about being a chemist is getting to say long words and knowing what they mean. I loved learning the IUPAC system for naming chemicals.

That’s why I found ingredient lists on shampoos & conditioners baffling. I didn’t know what most of the chemicals were. They were similar to IUPAC terms, but not quite. It turns out that the cosmetic industry doesn’t use the IUPAC naming system. Instead, they follow their own system as laid out in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) dictionary. This volume is produced by the main cosmetic industry trade group called the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC, formerly the CTFA but we’ll save that for another time).

List of Ingredients

The first thing to know about cosmetic ingredients is the ingredient list. In the United States, every personal care and cosmetic product is supposed to have their ingredients listed. In the business, we called it the LOI (list of ingredients). Any ingredient above 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration (by weight). At 1% or below, the ingredients can be listed in any order. Typically, preservatives and dyes are listed at the end. In a future post, we’ll show how this labeling requirement can help you formulate new products.

Any ingredient above 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration (by weight).

To be proper, companies are supposed to follow the naming conventions as laid out in the INCI.

Cosmetic Ingredient Naming Conventions

While many chemical names in the INCI seem arbitrary, there are some standard rules. The following will help you make heads or tails out of the ingredients on most LOIs. We can’t list all the conventions here, but we’ll point out the major ones and give examples.

Common Names

When they first came up with the INCI (originally called the CTFA Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary) in 1973, many cosmetic ingredients already had names. These common names were incorporated into the dictionary even though they didn’t follow any specific naming rules. Therefore, we use Glycerin instead of the more accurate Glycerol and Menthol instead of (1R, 2S, 5R)-2-isopropyl-5-methylcyclohexanol. Common names are also used for various natural ingredients like Lanolin and Beeswax.

Stem Names

Probably the most important thing to learn about naming cosmetic ingredients is to memorize this list of hydrocarbon stem names. It’s a bit different than the IUPAC.

So, if you have a 16-carbon alcohol, you call it Cetyl Alcohol instead of Hexadecanol. For an 18-carbon acid, you would use Stearic Acid instead of Ocatdecanoic acid.


You’ll run into names like Cocamidopropyl Betaine that don’t match any of the stem names. This is because the raw material uses coconut oil as a starting raw material. In these cases, you use an abbreviation of that starting material. Other ones you might see include Palm Kernel oil, Soybean oil and Sunflower oil. In a future post, we’ll show the fatty acid distribution of these materials.


The INCI tries to follow established conventions from other systems. For example, when you want to name an ether, you take the stem names from both fatty acids and add the term ether. Thus, a molecule made with a 14-carbon and 16-carbon chains connected by an oxygen would be called Cetyl Myristyl Ether. An ester of the same molecules would be Cetyl Myristate.

Nitrogen Containing

Hydrocarbons that contain nitrogen are amides and have the phrase included in their name. Therefore, Lauramide is used to describe a 12-Carbon molecule (Lauryl) that has a NH2 group on its end. If the Nitrogen has other hydrocarbons attached, those are also named. So, Lauramide DEA would be that same 12-Carbon molecule attached to a Nitrogen which also has Ethyl groups attached to it. When these Nitrogen containing compounds are turned into salts, the suffix “-monium” is added. So, a 16-Carbon attached to a Nitrogen with three methyl groups is Cetrimonium Chloride.


A variety of conventions are used to name polymers. For Nitrogen containing polymers, the term “Polyquaternium” is used. There is also a number associated with the ingredient but it doesn’t refer to anything chemically. It just happens to be the order in which the material was registered.

Other polymers use common abbreviations. PEG is Polyethylene Glycol. PPG is Polypropylene Glycol, etc. Then a number is included to refer to the moles of ethoxylation in the polymer.


For silicone containing materials, terms like Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone and amodimethicone are used. Whenever you see some form of these words in a chemical name, you know there is some silicone in it.


Ten years ago, you used to see the abbreviation FD&C in front of many chemical colorants. Today, however, the INCI has adopted a simplified method for naming colors. They just list the color followed by a number (e.g. Yellow 5). This doesn’t tell you anything about the chemical composition but you can get the structure by looking it up in the INCI. An alternative naming system is the EU one in which each colorant is assigned a 5-digit chemical index (CI) number. Yellow 5 in the EU is called CI 19140.

Miscellaneous Rules

There are many other rules that you’ll have to learn over time. To give you a flavor here are a few more.

  1. Water is just called Water. (Not deionized or purified or anything else. Just water)
  2. Fragrance is called Fragrance no matter what compounds are used to make it. This is changing but for now, it’s correct.
  3. Botanicals use the Latin name of the plant or part plus the term Extract. So, if you use an ingredient taken from the leaf of a lemon, the ingredient is called Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Leaf Extract.


The naming of raw materials in cosmetics share some characteristics with the IUPAC system used in Organic Chemistry. However, there are many differences and for some things it is impossible to determine the chemical structure from just the name. For more information, your best bet is to go to your company’s library (or your city’s) and take a look at the latest version of the INCI.

Do you have any ingredient naming questions? Leave a comment below and let us know.


Watermelon and CoQ10 facial cream – look at the label

Watermelon & CoQ10 Facial Cream with Caffeine SPF 20 is certainly a mouthful and it’s one of the beauty best sellers on Amazon. Is it worth $38? Let’s look at the label.

To the skeptical eye of a cosmetic chemist, this product is a bit of mess (at least as it’s portrayed on Amazon.com) Let’s look at some of the more interesting claims for the product then we’ll see what we can learn from the ingredient list.


  • 100% Natural and Organic
  • Smooths fine lines and wrinkles
  • Protects skin from UVA and UVB
  • Contains watermelon which repairs DNA damage by 25%.
  • It is also undiluted with water.
  • Revolutionary patent pending formula
  • Based on pure aloe juices
  • Will help brighten and revive your skin.

Ingredients compared to claims

If you dissect the ingredient list (see below) you’ll notice several inconsistent statements that appear to be written to mislead the consumer.

  • Aloe gel, which is the first ingredient, primarily consists of water. So how can the product be “undiluted with water?”
  • The Aloe gel is “based on “alginate from seaweed and irish moss extract.” How is that “pure aloe juices?” That doesn’t even make sense!
  • There’s no active sunscreen listed despite the fact that the product claims to provide an SPF of 20.
  • The components of the “Antioxidant Preservative Complex TM” are not listed which is illegal according to US labeling laws.
  • There are no oil phase ingredients or emulsifiers listed which means this product can’t be a true moisturizing cream

Watermelon & CoQ10 Facial Cream ingredients

**Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe) Aloe Vera Gel (based on organic alginate from seaweed and Irish moss extract), (Revita10 Super Anti-Aging ComplexTM including: Citrullus Lanatus (Watermelon) Seed Oil, CoQ10, Coffea arabica (Green Coffee) Oil, and Citrullus Lanatus (Watermelon) Seed Extract and Simmondsia chinens (Jojoba) Proteins), Alpha Hydroxy Acids (derived from organic fruit-Lactic, Tartaric, and Citric), Vegetable Glycerin, Vitamin C, Organic Extracts of *Vaccinium myrtillus(Bilberry), *Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon), *Saccharum Officinarum (Sugar Cane), Acer Saccharinum (Sugar Maple), *Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange), Essential Oils of *Mandarin Red, *Citrus Pectin, Antioxidant Complex PreservativeTM

The Beauty Brains bottom line

If you’re going to spend $38 for 1 ounce of product you should feel confident that the company is providing you with a quality product. Based on the inconsistencies between the claims and the ingredients we’d be very suspicious that this product provides any additional benefit that would justify its cost.

Please remember that you can support the Beauty Brains by purchasing ANYTHING on Amazon using the Beauty Brains Amazon.com link