Suggestions & tips for how to read product labels on your beauty & personal care items correctly + the importance of choosing safer products!
Today I wanted to chat about how to read product labels & what the heck to even look for when you go to pick up & try to read a product or ingredient list! It can be insanely overwhelming especially when you’re looking at a list of long, complicated words that you can barely pronounce, let alone understand what they mean! Can you relate? One of the most common questions I get when chatting about choosing safer beauty or cleaner products is…what to look for, how can you tell what’s good or what’s bad, & how do you even begin to decipher the long list of ingredients.
I get it & I’ve been there. There’s A LOT going on. So many long, complex words, so many chemicals to be aware of, there’s shady loopholes with some ingredients like fragrance, some brands don’t even care to share their full ingredients list, & more!
How can you NOT be overwhelmed?!
So below, I wanted to walk you through a handful of guidelines & tips on how to read product labels best! Hopefully this information can make your time spent looking at labels (if you are) a little easier & hopefully, a little less overwhelming. And if this idea of reading labels & looking out for specific ingredients is something new to you, I encourage you to start paying attention to the products you use. With an influx of health, skin, & autoimmune conditions, it’s so important to be mindful of the ingredients found in our products.
Just because a product is online or is on a shelf in your favorite store, does NOT mean it’s safe. Many products on shelves today contain MANY toxic & harmful chemicals that when used over time, can be linked to many health concerns, cancer, infertility, skin conditions, birth defects, & more. This is exactly why knowing how to read product labels is so important!
If “clean beauty” is new to you, I highly encourage you to do some research of your own. I also have some posts here on my blog to help educate as well, after you finish reading this post, maybe checkout my post on 10 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid, Why Switching to a Natural Deodorant Is So Important, How To Achieve A Non-Toxic At-Home Mani, & Why I Started Using Beautycounter.
The choices you make today, will make a difference in your life & health, tomorrow!
HOW TO READ PRODUCT LABELS
Listed in order of volume…
Ingredients are listed in order of volume. This means, the last few ingredients listed are in the smallest concentration. BUT even though an ingredient is low in concentration, doesn’t mean it’s automatically safe! For example, fragrance is usually found further down on the ingredient list on many products. Although fragrance looks/seems innocent, & might make up a small percentage of the formula, it can still be used to mask hundreds to thousands of harmful, hidden chemicals. Any ingredients used less than 1% of the formula can be listed in any order once you get to the end of the list, but like I said, just because they make up a small percentage, doesn’t make them any safer.
Just because an ingredient is hard to pronounce, doesn’t mean it’s automatically unsafe. This is always my rule of thumb for food ingredients. If I can’t pronounce something, I won’t eat it. However, this is NOT the case for ingredients listed on your beauty & personal care products.
The same goes for ingredients listed in another language! For example Shea Butter, which is a very safe & natural ingredient, is often listed as Butyrosperum parkii. Looking at that slapped onto a bottle of lotion is intimidating because what the heck is Butyrosperum parkii?! This is because some companies who also sell their products abroad use a different system for listing ingredients & as a result, some ingredient names appear in Latin instead of their common U.S. name.
Stay away from Fragrance!…
Fragrance is the beauty industry’s dirty little secret. It seems so innocent & might be responsible for you smelling amazing but as I mentioned above, it’s used as a total cop-out to mask hundreds to thousands of harmful, synthetic ingredients that the FDA does not require brands to list OR test for safety. “Fragrance” or “parfum” is something that should be avoided whenever possible, & double check your products, because it’s seriously in everything…even “clean” products! The product sitting on your bathroom shelf right now with “fragrance” listed on the ingredients list is most likely derived from petrochemicals & can be responsible for many health concerns such as, cancer, endocrine disruption, birth defects, asthma, nervous system disorders, allergies, skin irritation, & more!
I do want to mention that it’s okay for a product to have a scent. BUT if it does, “fragrance” should not be listed. Instead, you should be able to see/read exactly what makes up the scent. For example, a natural essential oil such as lavender, peppermint, grapefruit, orange, lemon, etc.
P.S. Many of the “clean” Sephora makeup & skincare picks STILL include fragrance on the ingredient list. If they were really clean, they shouldn’t have a problem listing what makes up that fragrance in the first place! Keep reading for more on this!
Transparent ingredient lists…
Brands, spas, & salons are not required by the FDA to list all of the ingredients that make up a product. Many brands & large retailers also don’t showcase product ingredients on their website which brings upon a huge transparency issue for consumers. ALL brands should list their ingredients, but that unfortunately is not the case. ALWAYS ask for a full ingredient list if you can’t find one on your own.
Many brands choose to highlight their “star” ingredients. I’m sure you’ve seen a product feature ingredients like aloe, coconut oil, rose water, shea butter, or an essential oil. This tactic unfortunately tricks consumers into thinking the product is “natural or “safe”. Even though it might not be!! This is greenwashing! If a brand chooses to not list ingredients, it’s most likely because they are trying to hide something or they just want to cash in upon the fact that the consumer just doesn’t know any better.
Beware of greenwashing! Just because a product has a “clean”, “organic”, “green”, “vegan”, “cruelty-free”, or “all-natural”, label, does NOT mean it’s automatically clean! Many brands participate in “greenwashing” which is basically tricking the consumer into believing the product is a lot cleaner that it really is, by emphasizing specific ingredient call-outs & taking advantage of trendy words like “green” & “vegan”. Covergirl’s new “Clean Fresh” makeup line is a perfect example of greenwashing, you can read more about that here!
What Certifications are best?…
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to look for a “clean” or “all-natural” promise on the label. I’ve begun to look for specific third-party certifications rather than empty promises. I want to know what the brand is doing beyond making their product & packaging appear that it’s good. Here are some certifications to keep an eye out for!
- Certified B Corporation – means a brand must meet specific “high standards of social & environmental performance, accountability, & transparency.”
- Leaping Bunny Certified – the highest of “cruelty-free” certifications for cosmetics & personal care products.
- EWG Verified – means the product formulation is up to code with the highest standard of safety in accordance to human health.
Long vs. short ingredient list…
A long ingredient list doesn’t mean a product is unsafe & a short ingredient list doesn’t mean a product IS safe! For example, this SK-II Facial Treatment Essence has a relatively short ingredient list BUT contains PARABENS! And on the contrary, this new C-Serum from Beautycounter has a much longer ingredient list, but it’s EWG verified, meaning this product passed the strictest test for human safety out there!
It’s high end, so it must be safe…
WRONG! Unfortunately, many high end brand are some of the worst offenders! Think La Mer, CHANEL, Kate Somerville, DIOR, Charlotte Tilbury, YVES Saint Laurent, Bobbi Brown, NARS, etc! I could go on! Just because you are paying a lot of money for a product, doesn’t mean it’s safe. In most cases, you are just paying for the name brand. Don’t be fooled by thinking you are choosing safer by paying more!
Double check Sephora’s Clean List…
This is something that I became aware of recently. A “clean” brand that I liked sent me some products to try & they are listed as a clean brand at Sephora, so I didn’t think too much into it. Turns out, I got a weird inclining to check out the ingredients & sure enough the foundation that is on the clean list, contains fragrance! And this isn’t the only offender either – this, this, this, this, this, this, as well as, many others are NOT as clean as they promise!
Most of them still list fragrance or parfum as an ingredient. If these products were as clean as they want us to believe, they shouldn’t have a problem listing their “fragrance”. Many “clean” brands still do not disclosure their fragrance, which is a problem. It also just makes it seem like they are trying to hide something. Especially since “fragrance” can be synonymous for hundreds to thousands of petrochemicals!
Start with a baseline of ingredients & work your way up from there…
I wrote a blog post last year detailing 10 harmful ingredients to be aware of & I think that’s a great starting ground for someone who is looking to learn more about ingredients or wants to get better about reading labels before purchasing. I recommend keeping an eye out for harmful, but popular ingredients such as parabens, BHA & BHT, coal tar, Sodium Lauryl & Laureth Sulfate, sulfates in general, mineral oil, phthalates, PEG compounds, oxybenzone, & synthetic fragrance or parfum, to name a few. Unfortunately all of these ingredients ARE allowed to be in our products & are located on shelves today.
What about packaging & expiration dates…
On the packaging or product bottle itself, there should be a little open container with a number in it. In one of the photos below, you can see the number “12”. The number will let you know how many months the product is good for, once opened! For most skincare, it’s usually 12 months, as well as, most makeup items. But sometimes you will see 24 months & I’ve even seen 6 months before. This is definitely something to start paying attention to. I think many of us, myself included, have used expired beauty products (makeup especially) which isn’t ideal!
There should also be (hopefully) instructions on the box saying if the product can be recycled & how. This is something Beautycounter has done recently through their partnership with How2Recycle. On each box, it will show you which parts can be recycled & how to do so, which I really like.
Finally, it’s important to look into a company’s packaging standards as well. Sometimes a product can be clean, but unfortunately due to toxins found within the actually packaging, bottle, or tube, the product no longer is “clean” due to harmful chemicals such as phthalates & BPA leaching in to the product itself through the packaging. Yet another reason why I love working for & sharing Beautycounter is due to their safety efforts beyond the product formulation itself. They take a deep look into the leachability, toxicity, & life cycle impacts of all of the packaging materials. Which is HUGE. Not only is the product formulation safe..but rest assured, the packaging isn’t going to compromise the clean formula either!
Utilize the EWG Database…
When in doubt, the EWG database is your best friend if you have questions or concerns regarding ingredients or products. EWG VERIFIED™ is a third-party certification where they review products against the strictest standards safe for human health. They have an online database, but their app is much more convenient! Also, I’m always here to help as well, I love chatting about safer products & explaining the importance of avoiding toxic ingredients, so please never hesitate to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or a DM on IG!
P.S. Did you know Beautycounter is EWG verified?
I hope these tips for how to read product labels can be of assistance to you if you are feeling a little overwhelmed when it comes to looking at a product label & wondering…is it safe?! With such a lack of communication & overall openness & transparency regarding ingredients found within our personal care items, I think it’s so important to be your own advocate & to really do your own research about what you’re comfortable using & putting on your body!
Especially since our skin is our largest organ, I think now, more than ever, it’s important to ask the tough questions, look into things, question shady brands & ingredients, & overall just ditch the chemicals! The choices we make today, matter tomorrow! Your body, health, & skin will thank you!
Do you have any questions about how to read product labels? Drop them in the comments below!