or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 5/30/10

   June 5th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Image: Chemicals, a Creative Commons Attribution image from heypauls photostreamI was alone at the desk one morning, helping a particularly frustrating patron locate something online. It took about ten minutes, and as soon as I finally finished with her, the next patron in line steped up and said,

I need to find some, ah, inky, um, chemical information. Where is your book on that, or better yet electronically?

As a result of the latent frustration from the previous patron, the first words out of my mouth were,

I have no idea what you're talking about.

I immediately felt bad, but it didn't seem to phase the patron at all. I asked him what general subject he meant, and he said it had to do with the ingredients in cosmetics. He had a page with him, with a small table printed on only about 1/4 of the sheet - in about 3 point type. It was tiny (I needed to give him our desk magnifying glass to read it). But the patron explained it was a table of a few cosmetic ingredients, listing their common name, chemical name, purpose, ID numbers, etc., and he wanted to find a table with the full list of approved cosmetics ingredients.

I was still thinking about the word "inky," and knew we had nothing like this in print, so I typed "inky chemical information" into Google. Not much, but when the patron saw it, it corrected me, saying it was "inci" not "inky." So I change my search to inci chemical information, and we start to make progress.

The fourth result was the Wikipedia article for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, (INCI) which did provide a table, but not with enough information. The References and External Links sections at the bottom of the page provided a few more leads, including another Wikipedia article, List of cosmetic ingredients - which again offered a table, but (also again) without the right information.

While searching, the patron tells me why he needs the information in such a specific format:

He's doing IT contract work for a company that makes cosmetics. To get approval, the company needs to submit their list of ingredients to the FDA, but it needs to be in a certain format and with specific information. To produce this, the company's Vice President has been retyping all the information out of a book the company has (he didn't know the name).

The patron thinks it's a waste of a Vice President's time to retype information, and leaves a great deal of room for typos (especially with all the ID numbers and scientific names). The patron wanted to find an electronic version of this book, or the information online, so he could teach the VP to copy/paste the information faster and more accurately.

I thought the FDA would provide a list, but I couldn't find it after an initial search. The patron started suggesting other search terms, so we switched to general internet searching, finding websites that offered partial lists, or some information but in the wrong format:

Then we noticed this sentence on the site: "the complete INCI list can be obtained in CD-ROM, book format or as website access through provided by the Personal Care Products Council." That sounded good, so we found the Personal Care Products Council, which had a Consumer Ingredient Information page, which indicated that CosmeticsInfo.org was their "in-depth online resource for consumers to learn the facts and science behind ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products."

That sounded perfect, but after searching through CosmeticsInfo.org, all we found was superficial safety information, not an ingredients list. So we went back to the Personal Care Products Council, and found a link to "On-line INFOBASE – the ultimate ingredient resource" - but both their searchable database and ingredient info list required passwords.

After these continual strike-outs, the patron concluded that online access wouldn't be free, so he was willing to settle for the book. We went to the Personal Care Products Council bookstore and found that web access cost $495 ($995 for non-members), and that the book was called the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary & Handbook, 13th Edition (Member Cost: $495, Nonmember Cost: $795, no CD-ROM available).

I searched WorldCat for the title, and found editions at both the Boston Public Library and the MA College of Pharmacy and Health Science (although not the latest editions). On a hunch, I checked the Pharmacy College's library research databases to see if they had online access to the database, and found one called "Healthy Ingredients"

A database of herbs and other ingredients used for cosmetics, aromatherapy, and dietary supplements; Overviews highlight the historical and current uses, modern research from human clinical studies, and the future outlook which addresses the availability, market statistics, and sustainability of each plant (when available). UN/PW MAY BE REQUIRED

We couldn't get in remotely (not too surprising), so I gave the patron contact information and directions to BPL and the Pharmacy College (also in Boston), and the patron said he'd drive into Boston over the weekend. I suggested he contact the Pharmacy College library first, and tell them what he was looking for, as I'm sure they have more specialty in this area than I do.

The fun part about this question was that the patron was really motivated and excited to find the perfect list. I might be pessimistic, but I never really expected to find a table that was exactly like what he wanted, but I do think we found some good options, and I'm also hoping the Pharmacy College will be able to help. I still think the FDA should provide this information, but I forgot to go back and check before he left. But wow, 17,000 ingredients is a lot.

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