So, what is in a name?

Why are scientific names so complicated?

Chemical or scientific names are important because they accurately characterize a molecule or substance, animal, or plant. Plants and animals have a name and a surname that helps identify where they stand in the ecosystem. The binomial system identifies genus (first name in capital letter), species (second name, no capitals). For instance, we are Homo sapiens. Genus Homo, species sapiens. For plants, the first name, genus, designates the characteristic of the plants. One genus can contain many species. Sometimes one species can have several variants with different chemical characteristics. For instance, we could be talking about thyme. But which type? I could be thinking of common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and you could be referencing lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus). There is also wooly thyme (T. pseudolanugenosus), creeping thyme (Thymus praecox), wild thyme (T. serpyllum) or even elfin thyme (T. serpyllum var. elfin). Yet another situation is I may know a plant by a name and in your local region you can call it by a different name! Look at all the different and valid names for lingonberry:


Mountain cranberry

Rock Cramberry


Dry ground cranberry

Northern mountain cranberry


Red whortleberry and so on.

Vaccinium uliginosum,

Often breakthrough knowledge in the field of genetics may get the scientist to update the scientific names. One example is Propionibacterium acnes, which is now known as Cutibacterium acnes. It is the same microbe but with a new name.

You can see that even when we speak the same language, there may be confusion. Imagine when people talk to each other across cultures and languages! Scientists talk to each other by using scientific names so that research can be accurate.

A similar system exists for chemical compounds. But while for animals and plants we have one system of classification and nomenclature, chemical compounds can follow several classifications. The American Chemical Society‘s CAS numbers assign a different number to each chemical compound, but being a number, it is not very informative of its structure. A more useful nomenclature system is the standard IUPAC system (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry). The naming system depends on who the audience being addressed. For instance, in cosmetics, we use INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients).

In many countries there are rules that need to be followed when packaging your cosmetics. We need to know if we can use cosmetics or not. Are you allergic to any ingredients? Does your philosophy of life preclude you from buying any type of ingredient, packaging, or advertising? We need to make sure we are aware of what is in the container we are about to buy. As informed consumers we need to make our choices wisely with the most accurate information and formulators and beauty companies have a standardized way of presenting information on labels.

Another reason names need to be fully accurate is that consumers, suppliers, formulators, and manufactures are “talking the same language” when discussing substances. When I want to buy shea butter for one of the products I may be developing, I will request Vitellaria paradoxa (old nomenclature: Buryrospermum parkii ).

In most countries, cosmetic labels are written in descending order of predominance. Botanicals are named using scientific (Latin) names. The common name can be added in parenthesis. Water can be named: Water, eau or aqua and is usually uppermost ingredient in most formulas. Flavors and/or fragrances can be named as perfum. Ingredients that are present in less than 1% can be named in any order. For color cosmetics, color can be added as “may contain” then the name of the color. This is because certain shades of the product may contain the color, while others may not. Allergens must be made notice of, after the list of ingredients. The EU has a list of these allergens and FDA follows the same guidelines.

To answer the first question: why are scientific names so complicated? The simple answer is they are not. We just need to understand the language of science!


Cosing: Cosmetic Ingredient Database of the European Union: Cosmetic ingredient database (

US Food and Drug Administration : Cosmetics | FDA

Published by elianamckee

I have been a physician for many years who is now developing my entrepreneurial side with an indie beauty brand, Eirwen. Eirwen is a beauty indie company that helps perimenopausal women with their skin needs. We are launching in 2023.

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