It’s very handy to know your way around a cosmetic label – here are the basics..

1 The basics

Cosmetic companies need to comply with certain regulations in order to put their products on the shelves of reputable stores. If you’re unsure about the legitimacy of a product, inspect the box and jar/tube to ensure the pack size (milliletres or grams), distributor contact details, ingredient list, expiration date, and instructions of use are all present.

2. Order matters

Ingredients are listed from high to low on a percentage basis. The actual percentages generally aren’t listed on the label.

3. …But not necessarily in the way you think

In a more-is-better culture it’s easy to get carried away. Take a retinol serum as example: You definitely want to see retinol (or a retinol derivative) on the ingredient label, but it’s going to be towards the bottom of the ingredient list as the optimal percentage is generally around 1%. The bulk of the first ingredients will be water, oils, buffering agents, pH stabilisers and other ingredients that are vital to ensure the product works the way it’s intended.

4. Preservatives

The majority of cosmetic products need preservatives in order to have a reasonable shelf life. These are used in small quantities, so you’ll generally see them towards the end of the ingredient list.

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Examples of preservatives are propylparaben, methylparaben, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and essential oils like geranium, clove and thyme.

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5. Single ingredient products

Some products (think essential oils, fatty oils, pure shea butter) work great on their own, and are packaged as single ingredient products. There won’t be an ingredient list on these, but there should be a botanical name front and centre if it’s a plant-based product.

With these products it’s good to look for a natural or organic certification of some sort on the label, as this is an assurance of the purity (two well known certification bodies are Ecocert and Soil Association).

6. Irritants

If you have sensitive skin or skin that easily reacts to cosmetic products, you should try to avoid known irritants. The list is long and not everyone is sensitive to the same things, but here are some to take note of:

  • Fragrance/parfum
  • Colourants (usually listed as a name, letter & colour combination e.g. Yellow D123)
  • Ethanol or ethyl alcohol (also listed as denatured alcohol or alcohol denat). Fatty alcohols are completely different and do not fall into this category – these include cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl or lanolin alcohol.
  • Formaldehyde
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate
  • Phtalates

7. Check your allergens

If you have food or environmental allergies, you should check for those components in your cosmetic products. I once worked with a client who had a severe reaction to a facial mist, and we worked through countless questionnaires to pinpoint the source. She had forgotten to mention an allergy to citrus fruit, and the product contained vitamin C – hence the reaction.

Along the same vein, you should look out for nut derivatives if you have any form of a nut allergy – including shea and cocoa butter.