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I know you want to avoid products with ingredients that could potentially harm you, and I know how hard that can, that is why I created this guide on how to become an ingredients list expert.
In this guide, you will learn:
- What information is present on a cosmetic label
- How to read an ingredients list
- What different labels and certifications mean
- Common toxic ingredients to avoid
- Potentially irritating ingredients to avoid
- Chemical-sounding names that are actually safe
- How to spot "greenwashing" terms
What You Will Commonly See on a Cosmetic Label
Some of the common information you’ll find on a cosmetic product includes:
- brand name and product name
- product type/purpose and description
- ingredient list
- the product weight or volume (net contents)
- usage/storage directions
- manufacturer contact details
How to Read an Ingredients List
A cosmetic label will include the ingredients used in the product, this is known as the INCI list. INCI stands for “International nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients” and is a naming system for ingredients based on scientific nomenclature. According to the INCI system, ingredients must be named using their scientific and, for plants, Latin names.
Ingredients lists are organized in descending order from greatest amount to lowest amount present in the product, with a few exceptions:
- Ingredients present at a concentration of less than 1% can be listed in any order.
- Color additives can be listed in any order.
- Some "drug-like" ingredients such as those in sunscreen must have the active ingredient listed first.
Generally, the first 5 ingredients will make up the bulk of the product, after that the concentrations tend to be low.
European products will show a listing of potential allergens at the end of the INCI list. These are constituents of natural essential oils or synthetic fragrances. There are 26 possible allergens including geraniol, limonene and linalool (find a list of all 26 here).
Resources for Understanding INCI names
- EWG's Skin Deep Database - here you can search for products or specific ingredients and see potential concerns such as toxicity, irritation, and contamination.
- Cosmetics Info - Search for ingredients and learn what they do.
- Paula's Choice Ingredients Dictionary - An easy to use list of cosmetic ingredients and their function.
- A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients - This book is an excellent resource for learning about cosmetic ingredients.
Seals and Labels
Seals and labels help us quickly tell if a product meets specific standards. Be aware, though, that there are plenty of incredible and genuinely natural skin care brands that are too small to afford these labels and certifications.
Here are some common labels you will see on skincare products and what they mean:
EcoCert - France-based international standard for organic foods and cosmetics.
- Ecocert Organic – a minimum of 95% of all plant-based ingredients and a minimum of 10% of all ingredients by weight must be from organic sources.
- Ecocert Natural – A minimum of 50% of plant-based ingredients and a minimum of 5% of all ingredients by weight must be from organic sources.
USDA Certified Organic – this label is stringent, a minimum of 95% of all ingredients must be certified organic, and they must be agricultural.
Soil Association Organic – if an ingredient is available organically, it must be used. At least 95% of agro-ingredients must be organic, with at least 20% of the total product being organic.
BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics – must be made from natural, raw materials such as plants oils, herbal extracts, and essential oils.
Natural Products Association – A product must be made with mostly natural ingredients and avoid any ingredients with suspected human risk. Ingredients must come from plants and never from petroleum sources.
Natrue – does not allow petroleum-derived substances, synthetic fragrances, and colors, GMO's, silicone oils and derivatives, or irradiated ingredients. 75% of a brands product range must be natural to receive this seal.
Some products will say a percentage of them is organic, such as "75% organic ingredients". They can still have a seal on them, but they must disclose the percentage of organic ingredients.
A List of Ingredients to Avoid
Learn to recognize what ingredients to avoid. We have compiled a list to help you:
- Coal Tar – a known carcinogen, used in anti-dandruff and anti-lice shampoo, as well as dry skin treatments. Also listed as a color + number (FD&C Red # 6).
- DEA/TEA/MEA – used as emulsifiers and foaming agents, a suspected carcinogen. What to look for on the label:
- cocamide DEA
- cocamide MEA
- DEA-cetyl phosphate
- DEA oleth-3 phosphate
- linoleamide MEA
- myristamide DEA
- lauramide DEA
- oleamide DEA
- stearamide MEA
- TEA-lauryl sulfate
- Ethoxylated surfactants and 1,4-dioxane – not listed on the label, but rather is a byproduct of ethylene oxide which is added to skin care to make other chemicals less harsh. Avoid any ingredients ending in "eth".
- Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde-releasing chemicals are used in your cosmetics so that they don't grow bacteria. This is not listed on the label, so you have to play detective with the ingredient list. Look for these chemicals:
- DMDM hydantoin,
- Imidazolidinyl urea,
- Diazolidinyl urea,
- Bronopol (2–bromo–2–nitropropane–1,3-diol )
- Fragrance/Parfum – An umbrella term for many chemicals, including phtalates. Fragrance can cause allergies, asthma, dizziness, and headaches.
- Hydroquinone – used as a skin lightener, it has a high toxicity rating on EWG's Skin Deep Database.
- Lead – this is a contaminant found in lipsticks and hair dyes, not listed on the ingredients label.
- Mineral oil – A petroleum-derived substance, mineral oil hydrates by creating a film on the skin. This film impairs the skins ability to release toxins. It has no nutrients and can be contaminated.
- Oxybenzone – A sunscreen chemical that absorbs readily into our bodies and accumulates in fatty tissue. The chemical was found in 97% of people tested (source).
- Parabens – present in 85% of cosmetics, parabens act as preservatives. Linked to hormone disruption and reproductive toxicity.
- Phthalates – widely used in cosmetics to make products cling to the skin or hair, phthalates are shown to cause liver, kidney, lung, and reproductive system damage. They are found in virtually every person tested for them.
- Placental extract – placentas produce estrogen and other hormones, giving this extract the potential to will mess with your endocrine system. I would like to know – where are these placentas coming from?
- Polyethylene glycol (PEG) – PEGS function as emollients, emulsifiers and as skin penetration enhancers. They can be contaminated with carcinogens such as Ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. Because they can enhance skin penetration of a product, other harmful ingredients are more readily absorbed.
- Silicone-derived emollients – these coat the skin, interfering with its ability to breathe and release toxins. They are known tumor-promoters. Look for:
- dimethicone copolyol
- Sodium lauryl (ether) sulfate (SLS, SLES) – Used to create foam, may be contaminated with Ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. SLS can irritate the skin and eyes.
- Talc – Can be contaminated with asbestos fibers, making it a risk for respiratory toxicity and cancer.
- Toluene – a toxic chemical used in nail products and hair dyes. It is given a high hazard rating on Skin Deep. A pregnant mother's exposure to toluene can cause fetal damage. It is damaging to the respiratory system and central nervous system. Can be hidden under "fragrance".
- Triclosan – an antibacterial ingredient, linked to cancer and endocrine disruption.
Check your products or questionable ingredients for their hazard rating on EWG's Skin Deep Database.
I like to stick with products that contain 100% plant-derived ingredients. If I don't know what in ingredients is, I will look it up or leave the product on the shelf. If a product does not have an ingredients list, I will not purchase it.
If you have acne-prone skin, you will also want to avoid the array of comedogenic ingredients that can clog your pores - see the comedogenic ingredients list.
These ingredients tend to be the most irritating and are best avoided, especially by those with sensitive skin:
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Cocamidopropyl Betaine
- Benzyl Alcohol
- Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate
- Some essential oils can be irritating
Chemical-Sounding Ingredients that are Actually Natural
Sometimes you will find ingredients that are hard to pronounce, or sound "chemical-like", but are actually naturally-derived ingredients. Just because you don't know what something is - doesn't mean it is toxic.
Here are a few examples:
- Tocopherol: Vitamin E, it protects the product from going rancid.
- Xanthan gum: A naturally derived gum that thickens the product.
- Cetyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol: A fatty alcohol that stabilizes emulsions and has a moisturizing action. It is not drying as pure alcohol (ethanol).
- Citric acid: Regulates the PH level of a product and protects it from microbial contamination.
- Sorbitan olivate: Made from sorbitol (alcohol sugar found in chewing gums) and olive oil. It is used as an emulsifier.
- Potassium sorbate: Potassium salt of natural sorbic acid, it is used as a preservative.
Common Greenwashing Terms
Greenwashing is the use of certain terms or claims that imply a product is made with natural plant ingredients or is environmentally friendly, but it is just a marketing ploy, and the product still contains toxic compounds.
Note that not all companies who use these terms are being misleading - but some of them are. That is why reading the actual ingredients list is more important than looking at labels and packaging alone. Here are some terms that you may want to look out for:
"Natural" - this term is very subjective and does not always mean the product is toxin free. There is no regulation on using the word natural to describe a product.
"Organic" - unless there is a certified organic label on the product, the word organic may not mean much.
"Chemical-Free" - nothing is technically chemical-free, as all substances can be said to be chemicals. Europe has banned the use of "chemical-free" on their products, but the US and Canada have not.
"Botanical" - this word can be used to give the false promise of a naturally plant-derived product. Some companies will use the word botanical because they added a tiny amount of a natural extract when the rest of the ingredients are synthetic.
"Dermatologist tested" - This is an empty claim, even if a dermatologist was involved in the process, they could have been paid to claim the product meets their approval.
"Holistic" - This claim can be used solely for marketing purposes.
Watch the video below for more information on greenwashed brands and how to avoid them:
Searching for natural and organic cosmetics can be a delicate process. There are many chemical names to memorize and watch out for, so many labels to learn, and so many ways companies can deceive you into thinking something is natural - when it really isn't.
Research the products and brands you are thinking of buying, do they live up to their claims? Don't depend on labels and always read ingredients lists. If a product doesn't have an ingredients list - leave it on the shelf.
You can check out our list of the Best Organic Skin Care Brands - these are hand-selected by me and are brands I trust.
You can also head over to our "Where to Shop" page. The shops we list there only curate genuinely natural products and have taken the time to scrutinize every product they sell.
I hope that this article helps you in your search for safe skin care.
Do you have any tips to share? Please leave a comment below!