Glossary of Active Ingredient in Cosmetic Preparations

Ever found yourself studying the ingredients on your skincare packaging and left wondering what they all mean?

For consumer clarity, skincare companies have to use the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) when listing what’s in a formula.

Here at The Naked Chemist, we are all about transparency and education, so we are going to show you how to become your own label detective and analyze ingredients and understand the terminology behind many of your formulas.

  • Antioxidants: These are very active ingredients and are often used in skincare formulas to combat free radicals, they help to prevent premature aging through oxidation, and subsequent deterioration of our skin cells.
  • Binding Agents: These ingredients hold together products, preventing the water and lipid components from separating.
  • Buffers: These are solutions used to help maintain the acid, alkaline balance on the skin, they are used in your cosmetic preparations to minimise irritation.
  • Catalysts: These are substances that cause or increase the speed of chemical change, they are most often found in two-part formulations.
  • Colours: Colouring agents of natural and synthetic origin.
  • Detergents: A group of synthetic or organic cleaning agents.
  • Dyes: Colorants are added to skincare products and cosmetics, to enhance their aesthetic appeal.
  • Dispersants: These substances used in cosmetic preparations, help to facilitate the dispersal of one ingredient into another.
  • Elastomers: A substance with rubber-like properties that are often found in masks.
  • Emollients: Any compounds used to moisturise, lubricate, and smooth the skin surface.
  • Emulsifiers: A series of agents used to assist in the mixing of normal non-mixable substances, for example, oil and water
  • Essential oils: These are are volatile essences of plants that create a unique fragrance for skincare products. They can be extracted from plant’s flowers, stems, bark, leaves and sometimes its fruits.
  • Fragrance: All skincare ingredients have to be listed under the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (Inci). But interestingly, fragrance gets a free pass under the law, it seems it is the only ingredient that’s allowed to hide and manufacturers don’t have to state what it really is. Yet according to the American Academy of dermatology, fragrances are the leading cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis, troubling for those who are susceptible to inflammatory skin conditions
  • Humectants: Substances used to attract and maintain the moisture content in formulations, in addition to maintaining the moisture content on the skin
  • Lubricants: Used in cosmetic preparations to reduce friction, making the skin smooth to touch
  • Mixture: A mixture contains more than one substance
  • Preservatives: Substances used to protect formulations from infection and decomposition, caused by microorganisms. The decomposition manifests itself as physical or chemical changes of colour texture and appearance. You can read more about preserving products, in the article what are parabens and how safe are they to use
  • Perfumes: Added to many cosmetics products, in order to enhance the appeal of the product and disguise odors of some products
  • Solute: An ingredient that dissolves in another
  • Solution: A mixture in which one substance, the solute, dissolves in another substance, the solvent
  • Suspension: A multi-phase system, that can be separated into its components by filtration e.g. sand and water, calamine solution, mud, and water

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