Five Ways to Decode Your Product’s Ingredient List

Reading and understanding a cosmetic ingredient label can be confusing and often difficult to understand. We’ve come up with five tips to help you navigate through and decipher your ingredient label.

1. All cosmetic ingredients must by law follow a European standardised scientific nomenclature listed in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI). For testing and regulatory purposes INCI creates continuity and transparency, but for those of us not familiar with the terms it can be completely baffling. Here’s how to determine which ingredients are natural: plant names are listed in their Latin names (always two words) with the common name in brackets. For example let’s look at sunflower oil. It would be listed as helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil. If it isn’t listed as such, then it probably isn’t a natural ingredient.

2. By law all ingredients are listed in order of concentration. If you are buying something because it contains a specific ingredient, check out where it falls within the ingredient list. Be aware that some companies will market their product containing a specific ingredient to make it more appealing and only include a small amount, placing it near the end of the ingredient list. This is legal, but what I and many consider an unethical practice, and commonly referred to as greenwashing.

3. When it says ‘organic’ and/or ‘natural’ don’t assume the product is entirely or highly organic and/or natural. Similar to above, it is completely legal for a company to market a product as natural or organic even if only a small percentage of the ingredient base comes from organic or natural sources. Here are some ways you can determine how much of the product is indeed organic and/or natural.
– Look for a percentage to qualify the claim. If a company markets that the product is 95% organic, 95% of the ingredients must be organic.
– If there is no percentage, look at the ingredients list to see what is asterixis as ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ and where the ingredients fall within the list. If closer to the bottom, you can assume only a small percentage of the product is ‘organic’ or ‘natural’.
– Look for certification such as COSMOS ORGANIC, COSMOS NATURAL or certifications through The Soil Association. Although this makes your purchases process a little more transparent, I personally find requirements to achieve certification too flexible, providing opportunity to claim organic without being very organic. Further, there are many brands out there who don’t pursue certification. Our products for example are not certified and this is due to the costs associated with getting certified. If you don’t see certification symbols, revisit the first two points in this section.

4. If the item contains water, there is a preservative. As water breeds bacterial growth, a preservative is added to prolong a product’s shelf-life and ensure consumer safety. There are many natural preservatives commonly used and people have varying positions on the use of natural versus synthetic. I personally feel natural preservatives are far healthier and offer benefits in addition to preserving. Synthetic preservatives on the other hand have been linked to causing health problems like skin irritation and developmental delays. Some synthetic preservatives include: Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), Triclosan as well as Methyl, Propyl, Butyl and Ethyl Paraben. How to avoid preservatives if you are confused? Don’t buy a product that contains water (aqua, in INCI terminology) or flower water, like rosewater (e.g.: Rosa Damascena Flower Water).

5. If you are buying a product with a fragrance, avoid those with the word parfum. Parfum is the INCI term for a variety of chemicals combined to produce a product’s fragrance. By law the chemicals that contribute to a parfum do not need to be listed, so you could be inhaling or placing on your skin a cornucopia of ingredients, including phthalates which have been scientifically linked to a number of health ailments like endocrine disruption, cancer and allergies. There are more dos and don’ts when it comes to the topic of product fragrance; however, I believe information on how to avoid phthalates is important, important enough that it warrants the spotlight.

I hope these five tips are useful. Before I sign off, one last thing. Please take note that that a full ingredient list is required on cosmetic product packaging, not on website listings. I want to underscore this as I’ve seen websites listing ‘active’ ingredients. In this instance, the active ingredients list may focus on the popular and omit the controversial ingredients. To see the full list, you need to see the actual product, and possibly the container. If you think the ingredient list is too short or too good to be true, Google the product or contact the company prior to purchase.

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