INCI Names - What The Heck Are Those?

Upfront Cosmetics, from its inception, has been focused on being as honest about our ingredients and process as possible. It’s right in the name, we want to be upfront with you. Informed consumers make smarter choices! One of the simplest ways we achieve that goal is by clearly labeling the full ingredients list on the box.

 “Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate?” you say. “What?? How am I supposed to know what that means? Or Cocamidopropyl betaine? I can’t even pronounce that! Why can’t you use plain English instead of 5$ words?” 

We’re not trying to hide anything from you, we promise. The reason for all this jargon is the INCI, or International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients.

The INCI was established in the 1970’s by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association as an internationally recognized way of identifying cosmetic ingredients. The group maintains the list to this day, though it’s had a name change and now goes by the Personal Care Products Council. The INCI system has since been adopted in the U.S., Canada, China, Japan, and across the European Union. 

Today, the INCI list has over 16,000 unique ingredients, including waxes, oils, pigments, botanical, chemicals, and other ingredients found in soaps and cosmetics. The goal is to minimize the barriers that often hinder consumer understanding and international trade. This way, a person can read a cosmetic label from anywhere in the world, and the same language is used and understood.

Remember in science class when you learned about Latin names used for plants and animals? For example, your house kitty would go by Felis catus. The common daisies we so look forward to seeing in the spring are called Bellis perennis. This naming system makes it possible to recognize species no matter what your native language, because we’ve chosen Latin as the common denominator. The INCI functions in the same way, using a combination of scientific names, and other Latin and English words.  

This way, when a person reads a cosmetic label the same type of language is used and understood. It allows consumers the ability to easily compare the ingredients between multiple products, and reduces the risk of an allergic reaction to an ingredient.

Anybody can say a thing has mint in it. But is it peppermint, or spearmint? (Mentha piperita vs. mentha spicata

What about beeswax, which has an INCI name for white and an INCI name for yellow? (Cera Alba vs. Cera flava)

Lemon oil and Lemongrass oil are a lot more different than you might think (Citrus limon vs. Cymbopogon citratus)


In some cases, the INCI names are exactly the same as common names, ie: citric acid or cetyl alcohol,  or are very similar ie: vegetable glycerine is shortened to glycerine, and Cocamidopropyl betaine (from coconut oil) shortened to Cocamidopropyl betaine

More often though, INCI names differ greatly from their common or scientific names. Any sort of water, whether it be purified water, deionized water, demineralized water, or just plain old water, becomes Aqua, which I’d say is pretty universally understood to be water. Vitamin E, which we at Upfront use in several formulas to make hair stronger, is also known by its INCI name, Tocopherol.

Extracts and oils that come from plants will most usually have the Latin name of the plant in its INCI name. Oat Bran becomes Avena Sativa (Oat) Bran, Aloe vera leaf gel becomes Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, and Tea tree oil becomes Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) Leaf Oil. Notice that in some cases, the INCI does include the common name in brackets, like in Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter). 

By requiring the INCI names on every product, it’s much clearer exactly what’s in your products. Imagine if companies labeled their products “Plant extracts, wax, essential oil, red color.” How would you know what plants are used? Is the wax natural, or petroleum based? Maybe you enjoy some essential oils but hate others. What if you happen to be allergic to the particular type of red dye used? The INCI regulations are there for consumer safety.