3 Tips for Reading Cosmetic Labels

Cosmetic labels and ingredient lists can be quite confusing and intimidating, especially when they are filled with claims and unpronounceable words. But it’s important to learn to read labels so you know what you are putting on your body and can verify if a product is really worth the money. Here are three tips on how to read cosmetic labels.

1. Beware of marketing strategies.

You often see words like “natural,” “all-natural,” “pure” and “organic” on the front label of a product. Unfortunately, those words are not regulated by the FDA and can be found on the labels of products that contain any type of ingredient, including synthetic (not natural), non-organic, not wild-harvested, etc., (a tactic called “green-washing”). The only way to ensure that a product is really made with organic ingredients is to look for the USDA Certified Organic Seal or another reputable certification, like the Organic Soil Association. Most of the smaller indie cosmetic brands that use 100% organic, naturally sourced ingredients don’t even use words like “natural” and “organic” on their labels.

Another way to understand if a product truly contains beneficial natural ingredients is to research the ingredients.

2. Research the ingredients.

Unless you have allergies, you may not feel prompted to research the ingredients in your favorite cosmetic products. However, learning about the ingredients in your products can help you avoid questionable ingredients so you spend your money on products that are really worth it. To research the ingredients, you can either search for them online (make sure to read from the most reputable sources available, such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information) or use the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. This is a quick, easy tool that offers a description of each ingredient and associates a toxicity rating from 0 to 10, based on the research available for the ingredient. Another helpful resource is Chemical of the Day, which offers in-depth information about many ingredients.

Pay special attention to common skin irritants such as detergents, including sodium lauryl sulfate. This chemical compound, although sourced from coconut, can be contaminated with a carcinogenic chemical called 1,4-dioxane. Other potential irritants are fragrances and preservatives, such as the infamous parabens. You may be surprised at how many commonly used products, even children’s products, contain several of these irritants in their formulations but are labeled as “natural,” “gentle” or “pure.”

3. The order matters, too.

Make sure to read the ingredient lists from top to bottom, as manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in order of concentration, from the main ingredient to the one with the lowest concentration. Some products have water and preservatives at the top of the list, which means that a large percentage of the product is made of fillers and only a smaller portion of the product is made of beneficial ingredients.

At first, learning what is in your products may seem a little frustrating and time-consuming, but in the long run it will be completely worth it. It will enable you to choose your cosmetics wisely, protecting your body and your wallet.

Photo credits: Lilly Wallace

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