Why do chemicals like shampoo and soap ingredients have such crazy long names? How are the names developed?


For example, my kids J&J baby wash has ingredients like cocamidopropyl, pentaerythrityl tetrastearate, and ethylhexylglycerine.

In: Chemistry

Those are chemical names. They are standardized by IUPAC (international Union of pure and applied chemistry) to uniquely identify a chemical and be reasonably descriptive. They describe class of chemicals, their structure, distinguishing characteristics etc.

There are specific standards for naming organic compounds in chemistry. The crazy names relate to characteristicsof the molecular structure.

These are actually alternative shortened names of chemical compounds.

Cocomidolproyl is a surfactant.
pentaerythrityl tetrastearate is a viscosity increasing agent in water.
Ethylhexylglyerine is an ether alcohol used as a preservative.

As others have mentioned, IUPAC gives us chemists a long list of rules about how to name chemicals. This way, we can accurately translate a chemical structure into a name, and any other chemist can know exactly what molecule we are talking about even if they’ve never heard of or seen that chemical before. Sometimes we shorten common chemical names, or portions of those names. So not all of the chemical names you’ll see are truly IUPAC, but rather “common names” citric acid is a good example since the real name of citric acid would be confusing and unrecognizable to the average consumer.

It’s a bit of the dihydrogen monoxide effect going on. They are less names and more descriptions of what exactly it is for anyone who knows the naming formula. It has the unfortunate side-effect of seeming strange, inscrutable and slightly scary to people who *don’t* know the naming formula, even though technically speaking a common name like “water” is significantly more ambiguous to someone who is encountering it for the first time.