How to be a better reader of beauty labels

Buying beauty products
Avoiding scary chemicals isn’t hard work—if you know what to look for. (Photo: SheKnows)


If I had a buck for every time a friend whipped a beauty product out of her gym bag or purse and asked, “This is good for me, right?”

Turns out, there’s a still a ton of confusion about the front of the bottle. That’s where marketing copy and cosmetic come-ons may legally go, like “infused with natural ingredients.” (Translation: Infused with a drizzle of something found in nature, but extracted in a way that doesn’t tell you if it’s even potent, and blended with anything else we wish.)

Not to mention the back of the bottle and the ingredient list. That’s much harder to read, but at least reveals some truths about what’s going on your body or face.

Because the thing is, no one is vetting skin-care products for you at the Food & Drug Administration, and we can’t always go shopping with you (we wish!). So here are tips on how to decipher beauty labels yourself.

1. Get to know the Dirty DozenYou don’t have to memorize the now-famous collection of ingredients banished by natural beauty lovers. But it can’t hurt to glance at the list, which started off as 12 and has grown to include a LOT more potentially harmful ones. (Dirty Thirty?) Here’s a cheat sheet with the biggest offenders.

2. Avoid unpronounceable chemicals… Sticking to only words you can understand without a biochem degree is a good start when it comes to avoiding chemicals. When in doubt, keep it simple.

3. …But look for Latin on the label. Plant ingredients must go by their Latin names on beauty labels (that’s mandatory internationally). Usually they’re followed by their English name in parenthesis—for example, “Lavandula angustifolia” for lavender oil, or “Rosmarinus officinalis” for rosemaryIf you want to make sure your skin-care ingredients are grown and not synthetic, looking for Latin on the label is key.

4. Scan for the USDA seal…but don’t depend on it entirely. While organic certification is a great way to choose beauty products—it means a company has used at least some ingredients that meet government standards for “organic”—it doesn’t necessarily apply to the finished formula. It also can limit your options. See number 6.

5. Skip the drugstore. I know, right?! But about 98 percent of brands sold in chain drug stores are still chemical-based. Consider shopping for smaller, artisanal brands sold at natural retailers that vet ingredients for you, like Spirit Beauty Lounge, Ayla Beauty or Saffron Rouge. And at Well+Good, we’re constantly testing new natural products for their effectiveness, glamour, and appeal, so we’ll keep you in the loop.

6. Get to know your favorite companies. A lot of those small, artisanal beauty brands are obsessed with sourcing clean ingredients from sustainable sources—but they don’t have the funds to apply for the USDA seal. However, they’d be happy to tell you the name of every farm or grower they work with.

All-natural brands tend to be way more transparent about their ingredients, and are very involved in the sourcing and manufacturing of high-quality, non-toxic ingredients. Like a chef who procures produce directly from a farmer, these brands know every step their ingredients take, from the farm to your face. RMS Beauty, One Love Organics, and In Fiore are just a few that come to mind.

7. Know about what might NOT be on the label. One of the most common ingredients on labels is “fragrance.” But fragrance is often a blend of hundreds of ingredients—and they aren’t required to be listed. A regulation given to perfumes in 1966 protects Chanel No. 5 from copycats but the trade off for shoppers is ignorance.

Also, ingredients that make up less than 1 percent of the formulation do not have to be declared on a label, even if they’re common allergens or carginogens. And trace ingredients in raw materials (which are typically preservatives) aren’t mentioned either. Sometimes they’re not even known to beauty brands turn a blind eye, or if manufacturers or labs are sourcing ingredients for them. In short, read between the lines. —Melisse Gelula

Got any tips or strategies for reading beauty product labels? Share them in the Comments, below!

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