How to Understand Any Natural Product Ingredient List
Here at Natura, we're about to start a big project that we should have done a looooong time ago: we need to make our ingredient lists legal. While our ingredient lists sound great and are easy to understand (and, of course, they accurately list what's in the product), they unfortunately don't conform to the strict standards that Health Canada has set out for cosmetic businesses:
"The Cosmetic Regulations require that all cosmetic products sold in Canada must list the ingredients on the label using the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) labelling system as found in the most recent edition of the International Cosmetic Ingredient (ICI) Dictionary and Handbook"
Let's use our Screech n' Coffee soap bar as an example. Here's how the ingredient list looks now:
Saponified oils (coconut, palm, sunflower, olive, castor), Water, Coffee (ground and brewed), Shea butter, Screech Spiced rum, Stearic acid, Molasses, Essential oils (sweet orange, cinnamon bark, clove bud, allspice, ginger root), Antioxidant with rosemary (coconut oil, rosemary, vitamin E, plant extract blend)
And here's how it will look when it conforms to the Health Canada standards:
Sodium cocoate, Sodium palmate, Sodium sunflowerate, Sodium olivate, Sodium castorate, Aqua, Coffea arabica (coffee), Butyrospermum parkii (shea butter) fruit, Screech Spiced rum, Stearic acid, Molasses/Mélasse, Citrus sinensis (orange) peel oil, Cinnamomum cassia (cinnamon) bark oil, Eugenia caryophyllus (clove) flower oil, Pimenta officinalis (allspice) berry oil, Zingiber officinale (ginger) root oil, Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf extract
Pretty different, huh? And all of a sudden, without actually changing any ingredients (yes, all the ingredients in this bar of soap are 100% natural), this ingredient list looks pretty intimidating!
And that's why I'm here. Let me break this ingredient list down, and when we're done, you'll be able to identify natural ingredients in any ingredient list.
To greatly simplify the process (I'll write a detailed article about it later), saponification involves combining oils and fats with a strong base to create soap molecules. Solid soap bars use Sodium hydroxide (NaOH), and liquid soaps use Potassium hydroxide. In our example above, one of the oils is coconut oil. The sodium in the NaOH bonds to the fatty acid portion of the oil molecule, creating a new molecule (in this case, sodium cocoate), as well as glycerin and water. When a soap is properly made, no strong base is left in the soap, so you won't see sodium hydroxide in a properly written ingredient list.
To identify saponified ingredients in an ingredient list, you need only look for ingredients that start with sodium and end with "-ate," as seen in "Sodium cocoate." If Potassium hydroxide is used to create the saponified ingredients, then potassium will begin the ingredient, as seen in "Potassium cocoate." Some saponified oils are easily recognized (what else could sodium sunflowerate be?), while others are more cryptic (saponified castor oil can also be listed as sodium ricinoleate). Usually a quick Google search will help you identify it.
"Botanicals are cosmetic ingredients directly derived from plants. Generally, these ingredients have not undergone chemical modification and include extracts, juices, waters, distillates, powders, oils, waxes, saps, tars, gums, unsaponifiables, and resins." (International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and Handbook)
Most natural products will have a whole bunch of botanicals in their ingredient lists. That's kind of the point. Botanicals must be listed under their scientific name (binomial nomenclature), and also mention what exactly it is. For example, the Screech n' Coffee soap bar is fragranced with essential oils, and each of these must be listed. In most cases, the common name will also be mentioned. Have a look at "Citrus sinensis (orange) peel oil." Citrus sinensis is the scientific name of the orange tree, then the common name is mentioned, and finally it lists that it is an oil from the peel of the fruit. As with saponified ingredients, if you don't recognize a scientific name and no common name is listed, you can just search the name for an immediate answer.
"Naturally occurring minerals with a definite chemical composition and/or physical properties ... are named according to the established, published nomenclature." (International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and Handbook)
This is the easiest one, because the "established, published nomenclature" is the just common name. So if a bar of soap is coloured with French pink clay (like our Hibiscus Rosehip soap bar), it will be listed as "French pink clay" in the ingredient list.
And finally, if you still aren't sure, search for your product or a particular ingredient in the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. It's an amazing resource with thousands of products and ingredients that have each been assigned a safety rating from 1 (low concern) to 10 (high concern) based on countless sources and databases. The information needs to be heeded with caution - it's easy to get scared when even a product with a rating of 1 has potential risks - but it can be a great way to see what's out there and what your choices are.