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How to Read Active Key Ingredients

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Verna Meachum

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Cosmetics and beauty care products are applied topically on the hair or skin’s surface to clean, condition, alter the odor, or change the color of the substrate, making it more appealing, healthy-looking, etc. There are various sub-categories for both skin and hair care products. For example, the Tier 1 products are generally cleansing, conditioning, moisturizing products that do not involve any chemical reaction. Their pH is usually slightly acidic to neutral (or maybe slightly alkaline). Tier 2 products are chemicals peels, hair bleaching, oxidative coloring, perms, hair straightener, and depilatory products. These products consist of chemical reactions with the skin or hair’s surface, which may alter the structure and morphology of the skin or hair.

In either category, the consumer has the right to know the exact “objective of the product,” “how to apply or use the product” and “what ingredients are used in the product.” At the same time, regulatory bodies need to know the product description to ensure that the product meets the rules and regulations defined by the regulatory bodies. To address this, the product label is usually placed on the back, which generally contains the required information in a very concise, yet comprehensive way.

In today’s blog, I will discuss the importance of the ingredient listing, what the ingredient listing printed on a product tells us, and how we can identify the active ingredient used in a given product.

The international Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients (INCI names)

In the early 70s & 80s, it was a voluntary practice to declare and put the names of all ingredients on the product label. Today, it is legally required and standard practice under ISO and other national and international standards. Globalization in the 21st century has hugely affected this job, as today, we can buy the products online from almost anywhere in the world. Moreover, companies are willing to educate their users and provide them with a complete set of information about their products.

In that regard, a global nomenclature called International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients (INCI) is the most comprehensive listing of all chemicals and ingredients. This listing facilitates the sales team, as well as consumers, to understand the information written on the product. This INCI nomenclature is the result of comprehensive work carried out over the years by developing a global consensus about an international language for chemical ingredients used in a product.

Today, almost all products available in the markets of EU, USA, Japan, China, Latin America, and Asia follow the INCI listing. Regulatory bodies from various countries have designed a list of more than 8000 ingredients that are currently in use for cosmetics.

Ingredient listing: What does it tell us?

Now, the fundamental question is, how to read the ingredient listing, and what does it tell us? Here’s example shown below:

ingredient listing 1.jpg

The picture is taken from a popular shampoo brand. The first ingredient we find is water. As per practice, manufacturers generally put all of the ingredients in order of their decreasing concentration level. So, we have water at the first listed ingredient (in the above example); this means water makes most of the product mass (approx. 70-80%). The 2nd and 3rd ingredients are two sulfate surfactants suggesting that the product is a sulfate-based cleansing formulation.

The last ingredients are usually perfume and preservatives (Chloroisothiazolinone & Methylisothiazolinone in the above example). The previous 4-5 ingredients are generally in the range of 0.50 – 0.05% of the total mass of the product. So, the above ingredient listings tell us that this cleansing product is made up of sulfate surfactants; thus, the consumer is made aware, in case he/she is allergic, or would want to avoid sulfate formulations.

Another example we want to analyze is collagen and protein treatment. Interestingly, hydrolyzed collagen is enlisted before water, which means the ingredient is the actual base of the product and makes the most of the product mass. The ingredient listing places both hydrolyzed collagen and hydrolyzed vegetable protein in the top ingredients suggesting a higher level of concentration.

ingredient listin 2.jpg

Active & Key ingredients: A slight difference in definition

The active ingredient is the ingredient that is added to the product for a specific function and is mainly responsible for the results of the product. However, it does not mean that the “Active Ingredient” will always be the first or second positioned ingredient in the ingredient listing. That’s why in some countries, it is standard practice to declare an active ingredient separately with a clear mark. For example, in the case of an oxidative hair dyeing cream, the active colorants are enlisted separately. The same is true for lye or no-lye relaxers and thio based perming systems.

However, the key ingredient might have a slightly different definition. For example, in the above cleansing formulation (1st example), sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are high in the list and therefore are the key ingredients. They are the main surfactants added and responsible for the overall efficacy and performance of the product. The same is described for second example where “Hydrolyzed Collagen” is the key ingredient.

Responsibility & Consumer Rights

It is the absolute responsibility of the product manufacturer to declare all of the ingredients of the product, and the consumer has the right to know everything the product contains. Any negligence on the part of the manufacturer may lead to serious consequences. Incorrect ingredient listing may misguide the consumer and may cause allergy, skin discomfort, or other dermatological issues. The problem may cause serious health issues and may end up with a lawsuit. Therefore the manufacturer is supposed to inform each and every ingredient used.

Why Do We Need to Know the Ingredient Listing?

In recent times, the public has raised the standard bar for awareness. The consumer today is well educated and is conscious of public health, legal, and environmental issues. Every one of us prefers to have a mild, skin-friendly, biodegradable, and environmentally friendly product.

A typical example is the sulfate-free movement over the last two decades. Sulfates (SLS & SLES or ALS & ALES) are high foaming and relatively low-cost surfactants used in household and personal care cleansing products. However, they have high irritation potential and can induce severe skin dermatitis. Consumer awareness has forced the formulators and manufacturers to replace these sulfate with milder and skin-friendly sulfate-free formulations.

Parabens are another example. These preservatives have been in use for ages; however, they may cause cancer. The scientific research and public awareness about the possible health concern have forced formulators to search for alternate preservative systems.

In both cases of the sulfate and parabens, the user must be advised accordingly, and the ingredient listing will guide them with choosing the right product. That’s why it is very important that the ingredient listing is given correctly.


We as consumers have become more aware and cautious of the ingredient list. The ingredient list gives the complete picture of the formulation. The order of listing describes the approximate level of concentration, and the first 2-3 ingredients are the key ingredients of the formulation. However, active ingredients might be down in the list, having a low concentration level, yet solely responsible for the objectives of the products.


1.         Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005.

2.         Robbins, C. R., Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. 5th ed.; Springer: 2012.

3.         Kirk-Othmer, Chemical Technology of Cosmetics. Wiley: 2012.

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