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How to Read Cosmetic Product Labels

Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)

Become consumer savvy. Learn how to read the labels on the cosmetics that you buy.

Case in point. I was just at a shop where they sold a big basket full of Shea Butter Body Products with SHEA BUTTER splashed in large letters on every jar and bottle - and the price was very reasonable - actually, downright cheap. Naturally, I had to look at the ingredient labels to see if they skimped on the other ingredients so they could sell shea butter products for so little. So, I searched and searched for shea butter on the label and finally found it near the end of the ingredient list, just after fragrance. Now, the percentage of fragrance in products is usually less than 1%, and since  the shea butter was listed after the fragrance that meant there was less than 1% shea butter in this product. This is a blatant example of consumer misinformation. Because cosmetics aren't regulated, it is up to you  to become label savvy.

Making Sense of Product Labels

Cosmetic formulations are only loosely regulated, and unlike for drugs, advertising puffery does not have to be supported by scientific evidence. On the other hand, mandatory ingredient listings are regulated, so the ingredient list on a cosmetic container is the only place where a consumer can readily find out the truth about what he or she is buying. To get the best benefit from cosmetics and skin care products, it's important to be aware of each product's ingredients and their benefits, and to avoid ingredients that are known allergens for you. To make this easier, cosmetic manufacturers are required to list a product's ingredients on the label in descending order of predominance. Keep in mind, however, that ingredients that a company considers trade secrets, and flavors and fragrances (considered trade secrets) do not have to be specifically listed. Instead, you will find a trade name or just fragrance.

Also keep in mind that products labeled unscented or fragrance free may still contain small amounts of fragrance needed to cover the odor of other chemical ingredients. Natural generally means that the product includes ingredients extracted from plants or animal products rather than ingredients produced chemically (learn more in our article about natural skin care products). Products labeled non-comedogenic do not contain ingredients that commonly clog pores, which can lead to acne.

Be wary of Product Claims

Labeling of cosmetics can be helpful when looking for specific ingredients, but be wary of certain product claims. For example, many products use the term hypoallergenic, although there are no regulations or standards for use of this term. Hypoallergenic suggests that a product is less likely than another, similar product to cause an allergic reaction, but manufacturers are not required to prove this claim.

Products labeled organic are made from organically grown plants, meaning they are grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This can result in better cosmetic ingredients made from hardier plants that are pesticide free. While labeling of organic products is partially regulated, product claims can be misleading. For example, made with organic ... only means that some of the ingredients are organic, and the required percentage before you can advertise this claim varies from one country to another, and one accreditation body to the next. Organic ingredients are not less likely to cause an allergic reaction. In fact, there is no cosmetic product that can guarantee it will never produce an allergic reaction in everyone.

What Can I Do to Prevent Reactions to Cosmetics?

Here are some tips to help prevent reactions to cosmetics:

Examples of Ingredient Labels

Let's look at the ingredient lists on a few sample labels.

Hypothetical Lip Balm

Ricinus communis (castor oil), simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) seed oil, cera alba (beeswax), flavor.

Each ingredient is listed first by its INCI name, followed by its common name in parentheses. Castor oil is the predominant ingredient in this lip balm, followed by jojoba oil. Beeswax is added to harden the product, and flavor is the least predominant ingredient.

Hypothetical Body Lotion

Aqua, aloe barbadenisis (aloe) leaf juice, citric acid, butyrospermum parkii (shea butter), stearic acid, cera alba (beeswax), fragrance.

Aqua, i.e. water, is the predominant ingredient. Actually, commercial body lotions can contain up to 85% water, so it's not unusual for Aqua to be the first ingredient. Aloe vera is the second most predominant ingredient, so there is a good chance that it is in sufficient quantity to be beneficial, since many experts suggest a 25% to 40% concentration to achieve a benefit in cosmetic products. By the way, this means that you should discount the value of Aloe Vera in any product where it isn't among the first three ingredients. Shea butter is the third ingredient, another good sign, since you want to see the beneficial ingredients (as opposed to the fillers) to be among the first five ingredients. The next two ingredients, stearic acid and beeswax, are used to give the cream body. Some beneficial ingredients like vitamins, extracts and AHA can appear in the last half of the ingredient list, since they can do their work in small concentrations, but this body lotion doesn't have any. Expect to find the preservatives (this lotion doesn't have a preservative) and fragrance near the end of the list, since these are typically about 1% each. Any ingredients listed after the preservatives and fragrance are in very small quantities.


International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration - Cosmetic Labeling and Label Claims

Canadian Cosmetic Regulations

Canadian Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act


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