Knowing how to read an ingredient label is an important part of consumer literacy and awareness. Not only should we all be looking at the labels on our cosmetics, food, and household items, but we should also equip ourselves with knowledge about what it is we are looking at when we read those oftentimes-intimidating ingredient lists. Ultimately, those ingredients go on our skin and in our bodies.
Reading ingredient labels can be confusing. The following tips can help us all to become more aware consumers, and to be able to exercise more control over what we choose to put in and on our bodies.
1. START AT THE TOP
The order in which ingredients appear can tell you a lot about a product. FDA and EU standards require that ingredients must be listed in order of concentration by weight, starting with the highest concentration. That means the first listed ingredient has the highest concentration in the product. Ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration after that. There is no way to know the exact percentages, as companies aren’t required to and they won’t release their formulations to the public, but knowing this little tip can tell you a lot about a product. For example, if the first ingredient in your product is water, you’re paying for a product that is mostly made up of water.
According to the FDA, there are some exceptions to this mandate that ingredients be listed in order of concentration. The exceptions are active drug ingredients, ingredients with less than 1% concentration, color additives, and "And other ingredients.” This means in these cases, manufacturers can list the ingredients in whatever order they choose. There is also no way to know where high-concentration ingredients end and low-concentration ingredients begin.
If your product has active ingredients, they will be listed separately. You will find the active ingredients listed with their specific concentration in a percentage. This is because active ingredients, by regulation, are often considered drugs, which means these ingredients are subject to regulatory oversight, unlike many other cosmetic ingredients.
2. WHAT DOES THAT WORD MEAN ANYWAY?
Have you ever looked at an ingredient label and wondered what all those words and chemicals, oils and oxides really are? What do the words mean and what do they stand for? In order to create consistency, ingredients are listed in their INCI names (The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients). This is why something like water is often listed as aqua. Some companies choose to list a translation in parenthesis for the sake of the consumer, although this is not required.
3. BE SURE TO LOOK FOR HELPFUL SYMBOLS AND LOGOS
Some products have a small image of a hand with a pointing finger scanning over a book. If you see this image, that means there was not enough space on the packaging for the full list of ingredients. This image is there to let you know that the ingredient list can be found somewhere else, like on a separate leaflet or a peel-away label. There are many other symbols often found on product packaging that will tell you how long the product’s shelf life is as well as whether or not the product is organic, cruelty free, vegan, or made from recycled material.
4. IF YOU CAN’T FIND IT, SOMEONE DOESN'T WANT YOU TO
My whole philosophy on access to information within the beauty industry is that if a company doesn't want us to know something, they won’t make it easy or possible for us to find it. Many household items like cleaners and detergent don’t have their ingredients listed on the physical product; sometimes companies will provide information online, sometimes not. If an ingredient label is too small to read, if you cannot readily access the ingredients on the company’s website or anywhere else, my instinct is that someone doesn't want consumers knowing what the ingredients are in the first place. Companies that have nothing to hide won’t try to hide anything; companies with something to hide will do just that.
5. DO A LITTLE RESEARCH
See an ingredient that you’re curious or concerned about? In my experience, the internet can be a pretty powerful place. There are a number of websites and online databases that provide information about cosmetic products and their ingredients, including the ingredients' uses, safety, and effectiveness. I like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database—they also have an app so you can check ingredients on the go on a smart phone or tablet. Even a quick Google search can help uncover information about certain ingredients. And the more you know, the more agency you have.
in lipstick & solidarity,