Ingredient names on labels do not accurately identify microplastics in personal care products

Posted by LLS Beauty Technical Team on 09/05/2019

What’s in a name?

When it comes to common ingredients in the labels for personal care products, some names can be confusing . . . and misleading.

The International Nomenclature Committee (INC) provides generic names (often called “INCI names”) to the ingredients in personal care products. INCI names appear in the back label of the product, usually after the word “Ingredients.” For example, a common ingredient INCI name you might see on the label is “acrylate copolymer.”

Recent publicity about “microplastics” in personal care products has raised the profile of ingredient labels for conscientious consumers. Microplastics typically are defined to be solid plastic particles, like microbeads. But consumers who check the ingredient labels will not find the answer to the question, “Does this product contain microplastics?” 

Ingredients in personal care products can be used in different physical forms, from liquid to gel to solid. Because INCI names are generic, a label listing the INCI names will not tell a consumer anything about the physical form of the ingredient in the product. The INCI name for an ingredient could appear on the label of one product in which the ingredient is used as a gel, and on the label of a different product in which the same ingredient is used as a solid. The INCI name itself does not tell the consumer whether the ingredient is used in the product as a liquid, a gel or a solid.

For all of these reasons, the INCI Committee recently issued a statement, clarifying that ingredient labels cannot tell you whether the product contains microplastics.  According to the statement, while “polymer ingredients can be identified by the term ‘poly’ within their INCI name,” the “assumption that all polymers are microplastics is inaccurate and misleading.” The committee stated that the solid form is the “single most important distinguishing feature” of a microplastic material. Because ingredients with the term “poly” could be present in the product as a liquid, a gel or a solid, “drawing the inference that the team ‘poly’ [in an INCI name] means microplastic” is just wrong.     

Several consumer shopping apps and magazines have used ingredient INCI names to identify personal care products that may contain microplastics. This misuse of the generic INCI names, however, has resulted in misidentification of ingredients that are not microplastics.     

Lubrizol’s acrylate polymers are never used in personal care products in solid form like microbeads. Instead, acrylate polymers are used in cleansers and shampoos as a gel or thickener. Lubrizol’s acrylate polymers never achieve a solid form, do not bioaccumulate, are largely removed in normal wastewater treatment and do not pose an environmental threat.

Lubrizol and other suppliers of acrylate copolymers have been affected by this misuse of INCI names. In fact, INC has acknowledged that the use of INCI names to identify microplastics can be misleading.

Sister publications Global Cosmetic Industry and Cosmetics & Toiletries recently published an editorial calling for more clarification in the labeling of ingredients, noting that beneficial and harmless ingredients have suffered because they sound similar to ingredients that consumers have come to view as harmful or undesirable.

We’re glad the industry is recognizing the confusion that can result from the misuse of INCI names.

To learn more about the difference between microplastics and acrylate polymers, go here.

LLS Beauty Technical Team

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