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How to Read Ingredient Lists on Beauty Products

Knowing what beauty and personal care products are safe for your health is no easy feat. And as the clean beauty market rapidly grows, how can you learn to effectively read ingredient lists and find out which brands are right for you? Transparency is key, so I’ve outlined the basics of reading an ingredient list below.

How to Read an Ingredient List on Beauty and Personal Care Products

Every company lists ingredients differently on their products but a few general rules are followed:

1 – Ingredients are listed in order of volume

Ingredients are listed by volume in the product, starting with the ingredient that is used the most in the formulation, to the least.

2 – With the exception of those used at less than 1%

Anything that is in the product at less than 1% of the overall formulation is listed last (these can be listed in any order).

3 – Should I avoid ingredients that are hard to pronounce?

No. This is a good rule of thumb for the food you buy, but doesn’t carry over to beauty products. As I’ve outlined below, sometimes ingredients look scary, but the company is using a naming rule that is designed to actually help customers know exactly what is in their product.

4 – Why do the ingredients look like Latin or scary chemical names?

There is an internationally recognized way to list ingredients called the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), this system increases transparency for customers and diminishes language barriers for companies who sell into different countries. In this system, shea butter, a common ingredient in beauty products is listed as butyrospermum parkii. To make things easier for customers, companies sometimes put the common name in parentheses after the INCI name.

This is a great example of why “hard to pronounce” ingredients aren’t always bad or unsafe.

5 – Avoid any product that has undisclosed fragrance

Listed as “fragrance” or “parfum” on the ingredient label, this is a word where hundreds of chemicals can “hide”. What this means is that companies don’t need to tell you about the ingredients used to make up their fragrances or scents. Unfortunately, fragrances are often made of ingredients that are known allergens or links to hormone disruption. This is known as the “fragrance loophole” which is an issue for any consumers in the North American and international marketplace.

6 – Professional salon products and those sold online are not subject to labeling requirements

Have you ever purchased a product from an online company and didn’t receive a full ingredient list on the packaging or through an insert? This is due to a loophole in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act that gives online products and professional salon products a free pass. Thankfully California recently passed legislation that would require ingredients to be disclosed for professional salon products, so we will see a shift in the marketplace.

7 – Many brands will indicate which ingredients are organic with an asterisk

There isn’t a standard way for companies to indicate organic, fair trade, or naturally sourced ingredients, but many use an asterisk * with supplementary information below.

8 – Don’t automatically fault companies who don’t list their full ingredients on packaging…but the full list needs to be online or via a product insert

Companies need to fully disclose the ingredients they use in their product formulations, period. But that many not always be possible on the actual product packaging, think about trying to put the ingredients on a lipstick box for example. If you’re shopping you can look up products in the EWG Skin Deep Database to see how their ingredients stack up.

9 – If the ingredient list is long, that means there must be bad stuff in the product, right?

Wrong. Unlike food, beauty and personal care products may require many different ingredients, so a long “IL” (ingredient list), doesn’t mean the product is somehow bad for you. This is another example where the food rules people follow don’t apply to beauty. The question is are the ingredients in the formulation screened for safety? Read more about the best tools for finding safer, non-toxic personal care products HERE.

So at the end of the day reading ingredient lists isn’t easy, even for someone like me who has been doing this for a long time. In short you want to support companies who fully list all ingredients (including fragrances) and use tools like the Skin Deep Database to help you find out which products are safer for your health!

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