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Decoding the Ingredients Label

Ingredients label
May 12, 2015 Reviewed by Marta 0 Comments

The ingredients label on the back of a cosmetics package looks a lot like a foreign language, which can be intimidating to any beauty junkie. For most of us, the beginning of our skin care journey begins with finally deciphering what these weird, Latin-esque words on the back of our jars and serums actually mean. And the next step? Figuring out which ingredients to look for and which ones to avoid.

But learning how to read an ingredients label is more than just hunting for "bad" ingredients. Reading a label is more like grading an English paper. You read what's there and figure out what's the best "grade" that product is for you. There are no clear right or wrong answers all the time, but learning to decode the ingredients is the most important step. With time, you'll be decoding labels like a pro.

Myth: "Dermatologist Recommended," "Clinically Proven," and "Non-Comedogenic" are things I can trust when featured prominently on packaging.

Reality: The cosmetics industry is largely self-regulated and a lot of terms we're so used to seeing plastered across beauty packaging is entirely up to the brand's discretion. From doctors who may not always be board-certified to biased studies that aren't always thoroughly researched, these terms are merely marketing ploys and should be treated with intelligent skepticism.

Myth: Ingredients are always listed in order by percentage

Reality: Once you start getting nerdy about skin care ingredients, this is usually the first tip put into practice. After all, it's easy: look for "good" ingredients (moisturizers, vitamins, etc.) on top and "bad" ingredients (fillers, preservatives, fragrances) on the bottom. However, there's a loop hole here. Products that have ingredients that make up less than 1% in concentration do not have to be listed in order, which means you could be getting a lot less of an ingredient than you realize. A cosmetics manufacturer could easily get away with listing .01% of hyaluronic acid above the .08% of xanthan gum, and it's perfectly legal.

Myth: Products labeled "all-natural" or "organic" are 100% free of all synthetics or toxins

These labels are misleading. Regardless of how natural a product is, some chemical processing is going to occur. However, products with the USDA Organic label must contain at least 95% or more organic ingredients. But according to EWG, organic ingredients do not automatically mean risk-free. Be skeptical when checking for natural or organic ingredients and use your best judgment.

Myth: Aminopropyl Ascorbyl Phosphates sounds scary. It's clearly poison, right?

Reality: Wrong. Ingredients are required to abide by the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) standards of identification. So the intimidating Aminopropyl ascorbyl phosphates is actually nothing more than a form of vitamin C. You can look up INCI terms online or here in our ingredients database.


There are thousands of terms in the INCI library, so here are some quick words to look for:

Emulsifiers: These are typically words with "-cone" or "meth" in them. The purpose of these ingredients is to bind the other ingredients together. Sometimes you'll also see them as an ingredient with a hypen and a number next to it, like ceteth-20. Silicones also belong to this category, which is a category of ingredients we try to avoid. The most common silicones are cyclopentasiloxane and cyclohexasiloxane.

Moisturizers: These tend to range from ingredients that penetrate the skin and ingredients that create a barrier for the skin. Most common ones are glycerin, mineral oil, ceramides and petroleum.

Alcohols: There are two types. When most brands boast being "alcohol-free," they're talking about SD alcohol, ethanol or ethyl alcohol, which are irritating and drying to the skin. However, other alcohols, like stearyl/cetostearyl/cetyl alcohol, are fatty alcohols that work as an emollient.

Preservatives: These are listed at the middle of the ingredients list. Not all preservatives are bad, but parabens are ones you should watch out for. Other popular preservatives are phenoxyethanol, urea, Benzoic Acid / Sodium Benzoate and Sorbic Acid / Potassium Sorbate.

Thickeners: Listed toward the bottom, these typically have root words like “carbomer,” “gum" and “crosspo­lymer." Nothing terrible but easily crosses into filler territory depending on the percentage of concentration.

Fragrances: Is usually always the last ingredient, listed as "fragrance" or "parfum." The FDA still considers fragrances to be trade secrets, and so brands are allowed to be vague about this. It's probably best to look for fragrances that are essential oil blends or naturally derived.

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