• Sandy Moon

Decoding Skin & Hair Care Labels

Although it sounds rather simple, reading labels can be very confusing. The biggest barrier to making sense of ingredient lists is the sheer number of ingredients that can be included in a formulation. There are thousands of ingredients and an incalculable number of potential mixtures of those ingredients, all of which create a variety of different textures and can impact how well a product can work on skin, or even if it will work.

Adding to the complexity are the chemical names of the ingredients, which, for many, are easy to misidentify (given how similar some ingredients appear by name) or to misunderstand their function in a formula. And, really, who wants to spend hours sorting this stuff out? (OK, I do, but, hey, that’s part of my passion!)

Natural plant extracts aren’t necessarily any easier to decipher than other ingredients—in fact, some natural ingredients have names that are just as long and unpronounceable. Just because the name is long, confusing, and unpronounceable doesn’t mean it is bad for you as has been stated in “natural” and “organic” beauty blogs.

A label is a list of ingredients that are contained in a skincare product.

Often referred to as the INCI or International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients. The common name to describe a component may also be used. The first ingredient on the label is always the one used the most. Additional ingredients are listed in descending order. However, if a product has less than 1% of that specific component, those do not need to be listed in order.

What’s Really Inside?

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires the manufacturers of skincare products to list their ingredients, the labels don’t have to say how much of an ingredient is in a product. But they do have to list products in order of highest percentage of the total volume, which is helpful. Often, manufacturers will push more desirable 1% or less ingredients higher up on their labels.

If you want to make sure your product contains more than just 1% of an advertised ingredient, look at the list below. The ingredients listed here are almost always used at 1% or less. So, if the advertised ingredient appears before these on a label, it comprises a higher percentage of the product’s total volume, which is what you want to see.

  • Vitamins

  • Vitamin derivatives like retinyl palmate, retinol, tocopherol acetate, ubiquinone

  • Carbomer

  • Xanthan gum

  • Hydroxyethyl cellulose

  • Magnesium aluminum silicate

  • Any ingredient with the word “cellulose”

  • Colorants or dyes

  • Methylparaben, propylparaben, phenoxyethanol, methylisothiazolinone, dehydroacetic acid, benzyl alcohol, potassium sorbate

  • Polysorbate

  • Acrylate

  • Copolymer

  • Dimethicone

  • Triethanolamine

  • Amino methyl propanol


In addition to the difficulty of making sense of an ingredient label, there are also the horror stories, posted on social media and on various websites, about certain ingredients being toxic, cancer-causing, or some other threat to one’s health.

Almost without exception, the fear-mongering information spread about some ingredients, have been thoroughly debunked as hoaxes or misinterpretations (whether accidental or intentional) of research findings. We’ll be talking about parabens, sulfates, etc. in next week’s article, these are ingredients you definitely want to avoid!

Authentic scientific and balanced information is out there, but it remains an ongoing effort for us to filter through the research, and the interpretation of the research results, to get to the truth. Getting to the truth, and understanding it when you get to it, is not something that a consumer can just pick up, or even find the time to figure out, especially when it’s easier and quicker to just believe the headlines! Many people, even those within the cosmetics industry, have difficulty in this area, and so fall prey to the misleading or false information, just like everyday consumers. Not surprisingly, this entire issue can become very confusing very quickly!

Common Product Claims

Some commonly used phrases on skincare products are widely misunderstood and require a closer look:

  • “Clinically Proven.” This would suggest that a product has gone through rigorous testing before landing on your store shelf, which isn’t necessarily the case. It simply means that the product went through clinical test. It doesn’t matter what kind of test, how many people were tested, the amount of the product used, or whether the product contains harmful ingredients. So, if a product claims to be clinically proven, examine the details of the study itself to know the actual results you can expect.

  • “Dermatologist Tested.” This usually means that a dermatologist has done a patch test to see if the product was irritating to the skin, not that it was tested to see if the product reduced wrinkles, made skin look healthier, or produced any other promised results. It also doesn’t mean that dermatologists recommend the product or that it is safe to use.

  • “Contains 99.9% Aloe Vera.” Percentage statements, such as this one, suggest the product contains that exact percentage of the ingredient. But it is only saying that the active ingredient is present. So, in this case, one drop of a 99.9% aloe vera solution added to a gel can get listed as 99.9% aloe vera. Also, many manufacturers put in a lower percentage of an active ingredient than has been shown to be effective in testing. For example, they may only put 1% of an ingredient in when 5% was shown to be effective in a study.

  • “Fragrance Free.” When a product calls itself “fragrance free” it sometimes means that no artificial fragrance was added, and that’s a good thing. But sometimes the manufacturer will add chemicals to mask a product’s natural odor and that can be called “fragrance free” too. So, check the label for artificial or synthetic fragrances, and be aware that a single “fragrance” ingredient can contain hundreds of unlisted ingredients that may or may not be safe.

Common Ingredients Found on Labels

Water: Often the first ingredient in most skincare products. A good substitution for water is Aloe Vera juice or hydrosols. They are packed full of nutrients for healthy skin. You may see more than one type used. For example, a serum, which contains 90% water may use 45% Aloe Vera gel and 45% Rose hydrosol. At Organic Moon, we have one product in which the first ingredient is Water… it is Organic Aloe Leaf Juice and Purified Deionized Water.

Oils: Many products contain oils. Oils are good for the face, skin, and hair, as they provide hydration and hold in moisture. They are even better when found from organic sources. Avoid petroleum-based oils, such as mineral oils, which are known to clog pores.

Humectants: Glycerin is the most common. A Humectant draws water in from the air, keeping your skin moist. Look for Vegetable Glycerin as it is plant-derived.

Emulsifiers: They help the product bind together and stay intact. They can be natural or synthetic. You may see E-wax, Stearic Acid, Borax, Soy Wax and Beeswax to name a few.

Proteins (Peptides): You may see the common name used more often with peptides. Proteins / Peptides are a critical ingredient, and you will want to make sure that they are listed toward the front of the list on the label. If they are located towards the end, there probably isn’t a high concentration of them. Look for natural peptides such as, Vitamin A, Green Tea, and CoQ10.

Natural Botanicals: Herbal extracts nourish your skin to keep it healthy with essential vitamins and minerals. You may see Calendula, Chamomile, Rooibos Leaf, Red Clover, Lavender, Green Tea.

Preservatives: Most used are synthetic, Methyl, Propyl, Butyl, and Ethyl Paraben, Quaternium-15, and Formaldehyde are preservatives that you should be very wary of. There are some natural preservative blends that are weak acids. Salicylic acid, benzoic acid, sorbic acid and levulinic acid are just a few to name. They are typically used at 1% or less.

Citric Acid: Is used to lower the ph.

Colorants: Give color. Some colorants (not from natural sources) are seen as possible carcinogens. So, do your homework in color. Dyes are usually listed at the end of a label because of the tiny amount used.

Label reading is not a mystery, but it does take some time to learn how to read a skincare label. You do need to know what ingredients are and how they should appear. With just a little time and effort, it will become easier to read all skin care labels. Get to know and understand your product labels. That’s the only way to truly know what is in the product you are using, and how safe that product really is.

Have any questions or concerns? We’re happy to hear them and help you better understand product labels.

Until next time, remember “Your Skin Deserves Love Too!”

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