When I first started researching cosmetic ingredients due to my chemical sensitivities, the information available was scarce. There were few books, websites, and apps to guide me through the swapping process. The lack of trustworthy, easy-to-consult resources forced me to learn more about cosmetic formulation and regulations than I originally intended to. However, it ultimately helped me to make more informed decisions. In this post, I am going to share the most important facts you need to know about cosmetic labeling and how to decode an ingredient list.
The rather large amount of information circulating on the web today can be quite confusing, mainly due to a lack of conclusive research on some controversial ingredients, and due to misinformation being spread—intentionally or unintentionally. My goal is to help you feel confident in choosing products that are free of any ingredients that you want to avoid, whether you’re doing it for your health, your ethical choices, or both.
Please note that labeling regulations vary from country to country and that this post refers to the current regulations on cosmetic product labeling in the United States of America.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) define cosmetics as “articles intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance without affecting the body’s structure or functions“. Cosmetics that can affect the body’s structure or functions are considered drugs, and therefore must comply not only with cosmetic labeling laws but also with drug labeling laws. This is the case with sunscreens, whose active ingredients (the ones that provide sun-protection) are listed above the inactive ingredients in the “drug facts” panel.
Cosmetic ingredient labeling came into effect in 1977 and was meant to protect consumers and ensure that all cosmetic products sold in the country complied with safety standards. In order to be sold in the United States, a cosmetic product label must comply with FD&C regulations, whether it is manufactured in the United States or abroad. A cosmetic label must also comply with the rules established in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which provides guidelines on what can or cannot be stated on a label. This is very important because most consumers tend to purchase products based on what they read on the front label of a package. However, while the front label can provide general information about a product, the only way to know what it contains (and what the product is really worth) is to analyze the ingredients list.
What’s on the Ingredients List?
On a product label, cosmetic ingredients must be listed with their International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) names. The INCI names are coined by the International Nomenclature Committee with the goal of making cosmetic ingredients identifiable internationally (so that ingredients like oils, butters, waxes, etc. are called the same thing all over the world), allowing for a less confusing trading process. The names are based on scientific nomenclature, hence the many Latin INCI names.
All ingredients that are present at a concentration above 1% must be listed in descending order of predominance (highest to lowest concentration). This means that the first ingredient listed is always the one present in the highest concentration. For example, if the first ingredient listed is water, the product is likely to contain, mostly, water. Ingredients present at a concentration lower or equal to 1% can be listed in any order.
FRAGRANCE & FLAVOR
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require fragrance and flavor compounds to be fully disclosed, as they are considered a “trade secret”. This protects the companies’ signature fragrances from being copied. However, it can be very problematic for many consumers who have allergies, or who simply want to avoid certain ingredients. A fragrance (also listed as “perfume” or “parfum”) may contain up to thousands of undisclosed ingredients used to create a particular scent.
USDA Organic. Although the FDA does not regulate the word “organic” on cosmetic labels, cosmetic products that contain 100% organic ingredients may display the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification symbol on the front label when they meet the USDA and National Organic Program standards for production, handling, processing, and labeling.
Non-GMO Verified. The Non-GMO verified program ensures that a product is made with ingredients that have not been genetically modified using genetic engineering or transgenic technology.
(Certified) Gluten-Free. Issued by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), this certification means that the product is certified gluten-free, and therefore can be safely used by people with celiac disease.
ECO Cert. Eco Cert is a France-born, internationally recognized certification that verifies that a cosmetic product is:
- Made with ingredients derived from renewable resources, manufactured by environmentally friendly processes
- Free of GMOs, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicone, PEG, synthetic perfumes and dyes, animal-derived ingredients (unless naturally produced like milk, honey, etc.).
- Uses biodegradable or recyclable packaging
Leaping Bunny International. This symbol means that the product is 100% free of animal testing, according to the Corporate Standard of Compassion for Animals.
Beauty Without Bunnies. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has their own program called Beauty without Bunnies, which allows companies that go through their verification process in order to place the PETA logo on their product labels.
Fair Trade. The Fair Trade symbol is used for products sourced from producers in developing countries; ensuring better prices, decent working conditions, and a fair deal for farmers and workers in developing countries.
Environmental Responsibility Symbols
Green Dot. The Green Dot symbol means that the company participates in the recovery, sorting, and recycling of sales packaging.
FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) is a symbol that guarantees that the product comes from responsible sources and that the manufacturer supports forest conservation and other social benefits.
Other Important Symbols
PAO (Period After Opening). This symbol is especially important to those of us who use products made with plenty of natural, plant-based ingredients as it provides information about a product’s shelf -life. This symbol shows you how long you can use your product after opening it, provided that the product has been stored under normal conditions (away from heat and light). This typically ranges between 3 months (as is the case for most mascaras) to 24 months. The reason why you should not use a product past its PAO is that harmful microbial growth may have taken place, which could be harmful to your health, such as mold and other unfriendly microorganisms.
Once you’ve taken a good look at all the symbols that matter to you, it’s time to move on to the ingredient list!
Easy Step-by-Step: How-To Read a Cosmetic Label
1) Identify symbols that are important to you on the front and back label. Symbols like a gluten-free certification may be extremely important if you have a gluten allergy. A cruelty-free symbol may be important to someone pursuing an animal-friendly lifestyle. If you want to use products that are 100% organic, look for the USDA certification.
2) Ignore/beware of claims, especially unreasonable ones. As mentioned above, cosmetic products cannot affect the body’s structure or function, so any label claiming that a product performs certain “miraculous” effects might be unlawful or unethical.
3) Beware of other marketing tricks, such as “free-of” and “contains organic…”. Just because a product is free of a known questionable preservative, or contains an organic, beneficial ingredient, does not mean that the entire formula is beneficial or completely safe. Same goes for “clinically-proven” and “dermatologist tested”, which are unregulated claims with no way of being verified.
4) Think of this label reading process the same as when you read a food product label: How many ingredients are in this product? (If you’re sensitive, the more ingredients the product contains, the greater chance you’ll experience a skin reaction).
5) Read the entire ingredient list, but pay special attention to the first few ingredients as they are present at higher concentrations, so they should be beneficial ingredients, not cheap fillers.
6) Remember that certain words are not regulated, and may be misleading, for example, “natural” and “organic”. A product whose name contains the word “organic” may not be made with an entirely organic formula or may only contain just a few organic ingredients. The ingredient list is where you can find out if the product is entirely organic or not.
7) Natural ingredients are not always the safest, and synthetic ingredients are not always harmful. When in doubt, look up the ingredient in a reputable database.