7 Steps to Mad Cosmetic Ingredients Label Reading Skills

Cosmetic Ingredients Crib Notes: 7 Steps to Mad Label Reading Skills

There are many more safe cosmetic brands on the market compared to a decade ago. But label reading has not gotten any easier. Time to up your cosmetic ingredient listing translation skills.

“I just love this skincare line, and it’s natural!” How often do you hear this said these days? It is great that more and more people are interested in healthy products. But the sad reality is, many “green” products really aren’t all that healthy. The labels may say it is natural, it may have a few plant ingredients and the name may sound natural, but these things do not mean a product is safe.

That is what we are truly after here. Safe products. Forget natural, even organic. Think healthy, good for you cosmetics. And there is only one way to identify safe products for sure. Read the ingredient listings.

You’ve heard it before, it is important to know what is in your products. But are you often stumped by hard to decipher cosmetics ingredients? They can be difficult to read and some not so clean manufacturers even go out of their way to make harmful ingredients less identifiable. All caps, bold print, and no readily apparent listings are just some of the ways conventional brands make ID-ing nasty ingredients tougher.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can learn to read ingredient listings, simply and effectively. All you need is a few hot tips and one helpful crib sheet.

7 Steps to Reading Cosmetic Ingredients Listings Like a Pro

1. Like I said above, the terms on the front of a product label often mean very little. Reputable nontoxic brands mean what they say. But you will see everything from “Natural” to “Organic” to “Pure” on products that contain synthetic ingredients. Ignore the front of a product label and turn to the back (or the packaging) and look for an ingredient listing. No listing on the packaging or product? A brand website will sometimes carry ingredient listings. Still can’t find one? Consider it not worth your time and move on.

2. Speaking of ingredient listings on brand websites. Have you ever been searching products and notice all ingredient listings say “Key Ingredients”? Bet they are all healthy looking too, right? Many toxic brands who market themselves as clean will use this tactic to showcase the healthy ingredients they use. The problem is, they are not disclosing all ingredients, so we can’t be sure if it is safe or not. This is always a red flag to me and I assume they are using ingredients they don’t want us to know about.

3. When you do find an ingredient listing, it is important to know how to decode it. Ingredients are listed in order of concentration, from greatest to least. So say a product is aloe based (aloe making up the greatest portion of the product), aloe would be first on the ingredient listing. And so on.

4. Feel like you are reading Greek? Sometimes even natural ingredient names look chemical. Brands who follow the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) labeling standard are required to list ingredients using scientific names. For instance, Jojoba oil would be listed as “Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil”. This can make an ingredient listing look crazy long and hard to read. INCI also requires fragrance from essential oils be listed as “Fragrance” or “Parfum”, which both sound synthetic. Brands using essential oils for fragrance usually note this under the ingredient listing.

5. Of course, you are going to come across indecipherable ingredient names that are not healthy. Take a look at our 11 Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid for help in identifying toxins. Bookmark for handy access while shopping.

6. We don’t always have time to peruse each and every label. When in a rush try this tip: Check the first five and last five ingredients on a listing. The first five make up most of the product, the last five are usually fragrance and preservatives. Not foolproof, but if these look clean, it is a fair bet that the product is safe.

7. Organically produced ingredients are healthier than the rest. But the most important first steps are to make sure a product is free from harmful ingredients. A product made with a few organic ingredients can still contain synthetics. Organic labeling for cosmetics is the same as for food: “100% Organic” means a product contains only organically produced ingredients, “Certified Organic” means the product is made of at least 95% organically produced ingredients, “Made with Organic Ingredients” means the product contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining 5-30% is what you need to check out.

The long and short of ingredient listing reading is this: Don’t get fooled by natural or organic claims, know what you don’t want in your products, and do your own research. Your health will benefit from it.

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Image of woman reading label via Shutterstock

Liz Thompson

Liz Thompson is an organic beauty expert who has been researching and writing on the subjects of natural beauty, health, and wellness for over 10 years. She specializes in sharing safe beauty products and her knowledge on healthy ingredients with her readers, and helping organic beauty brands and shop owners share their message and products with the world through her writing services.