There are 15 to 50 ingredients in the average cosmetic product.
The obscurity (unfortunately) of cosmetic labels is often intentional.
Few of us are chemists, and even fewer are willing and able to source the information needed to completely understand labels. So how is the average person really supposed to know what’s OK and what’s not?
Here are our tips for reading cosmetic labels.
Everyone’s skin is different. Even though a label may say “hypoallergenic,” it could still cause allergies for you. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has put together a list of common allergens in cosmetic products that works as a great starting place.
This terminology is supposed to be used to tell consumers if a product will clog their pores or not. It’s especially on interest to acne sufferers and people that produce excess sebum or “oil.” Comedogenic solutions like oils and extracts can be natural and synthetic.
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database is one of the most comprehensive and fact-based cosmetic chemical databases. You can search for a product or chemical and the database will show you ratings for its risk (or lack of risk) for causing cancer, reproductive or developmental harm, and causing allergies or immune responses.
Good vs. Bad Chemicals
Not all chemicals are bad, some are actually very good for your skin. So it’s important to educate yourself on the key components of a cosmetic product to be able to accurately assess its quality. Some companies will also disguise “bad” chemicals with confusing labeling.
- Anything ending in “cone” is a silicone. These are often used in primers as a spreadable but thickening additive to create an even barrier on the skin that makes it appear to be even and smooth.
- Alcohols aren’t “good,” but small traces can be necessary to help products form. It’s important to understand the different types of alcohols, their concentrations, and how they can irritate the skin. “Alcohol-free” labeling can be misleading.
- Water is in all cosmetic products, but the quality of it impacts the purity and effectiveness of formulas.
- Preservatives are what dictates a product’s shelf life. Some preservatives are safe, some aren’t.
- Thickening agents come in synthetic and natural forms from a variety of sources.
- Emulsifiers help mix water and oil.
- Emollients are added to cosmetics to create a smoothing effect similar to silicone.
- Humectants are used to draw moisture to the skin.
- Occlusives retain moisture.
- Chemicals that protect the skin from the sun can have a lot of scary-sounding names.
- Pigments and fragrances can be sourced naturally or from a laboratory. Regardless all types can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
Cosmetic Labels Order
Just like food, the order ingredients in a label are listed reflects the concentration of each material. This is useful in evaluating the effectiveness of a product.
For example, if you buy a product that labels retinol as its magic ingredient, but retinol is one of the last ingredients listed, the product is likely not as effective as it might say it is. Generally, the chemicals listed after the preservative have less than a one percent concentration in the product.
Understanding Shelf Life
Even though most commercially produced cosmetics don’t come with a “sell by” or “use by” date, they do come with guidance for how long a product is usable for after opening it.
There is a very small jar icon printed on every label that displays labeling like “6M” and “24M.” These numbers stand for “six months” and “24 months.”
Manufacturing and Distribution
Manufacturers and distributors aren’t the same thing. A product could be manufactured in China, but be distributed by an American company. Different countries and states have different regulations for cosmetics, chemical use, and ethics. So it’s important to know where exactly your products are made to know if the quality standards are being upheld.
But “American made” isn’t always the best. Over 40 different nations have stricter cosmetic regulations than the United States. For example, The European Union has banned over 1,300 chemicals, Canada has banned over 500 and the United States has only banned 30 chemicals.
Seals and Certifications
The cosmetic industry has become concentrated with many quality markers and labels that can create confusion for consumers. Some of the most popular include:
- Cruelty-Free (with the pink and white rabbit logo) — Verifies that the company and ingredient suppliers do not conduct or commission animal testing, according to the company.
- Leaping Bunny — Verifies that the company and ingredient suppliers do not conduct or commission animal testing, the organisation “spot checks” companies to ensure they withhold standards.
- USDA Organic — Denotes full products or specific ingredients (not the whole product) that are certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture.
- COSMetic Organic and natural Standard — A label that assesses cosmetic products and the supply chain to assess its environmental quality.
- Fair Trade — Rates the ethical standards of a manufacturer.
It’s important to thoroughly investigate the quality of the labeling in question. Unfortunately, a lot of “pretender” labels have been created in an attempt to greenwash products that aren’t actually abiding by decent ethical standards.
Most labels also cost money, so not every product that may meet your standards may be able to afford the appropriate labeling. In these cases don’t be afraid to reach out to a cosmetics company to ask questions. As a rule of thumb, the clearer and more transparent they are, the better the company.
Shopping Smarter for Cosmetics
These tips are only the beginning of comprehending cosmetic labels. Additional markers like formula composition and the concentration of chemicals in a product also play a role.
Click here to find clean, legitimate products without confusing labels.