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How to read your Ingredients list

Cosmetic Ingredients Lists

Ingredient’s lists on your cosmetic box can be overwhelming. Not only are they in really tiny text sometimes, but it can feel like you’re reading another language. There is way to understand what’s going on and how this works because every manufacturer needs to follow a convention when listing ingredients.

Most to least rule

First off, ingredients are listed starting from highest percentage to lowest percentage in your product. If there are two (2) or more ingredients used in the same percentage, then it’s up to the manufacturer to decide the order. In North America, all ingredients used in < 1% can be listed in any order. Manufacturers like to take advantage of that sometimes. So, someone using a preservative at 0.5% and Hyaluronic acid at 0.1% can list the Hyaluronic acid ahead of the preservative to bump it up on the list. In the EU, Japan and Australia, this is not allowed.

Naming convention

Ingredients like waxes, oils, extracts, synthetic chemicals are all listed by their scientific or botanical name instead of English or Latin to meet cosmetic regulations in most countries. This listing method is referred to as INCI – International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. An INCI keeps things consistent, clear and not open to interpretation. Every ingredient has an INCI and this is what is (or should be) listed on your cosmetic box. For example Lavender essential oil will be listed as Lavendula angustifolia flower oil. Coconut oil is Cocos Nucifera oil.
Specialty ingredients like vitamin C are usually processed into purer easily absorbable molecular forms and may be listed as Ascorbyl Palmitate, L-Ascorbic acid, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate etc. When you want to find what an ingredient might be listed as, look up the ingredient and "INCI" in your web browser.

Fewer ingredients doesn't mean it is a crude product

Less ingredients means there’s more of those ingredients in your product. They’re not splitting space with a bunch of other things. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, when you’re using a serum, you want to treat specific skin concerns and you may want a concentrated dose of a few ingredients that target your concern, not a long laundry list of ingredients in small quantities each. What then would that accomplish?

More ingredients isn't necessarily bad either

Some formulas are complex. A fully oil-based product will generally have a bunch of oils and waxes. But a lotion or cream (something that mixes water and oil) is a little more involved in its development. It needs building blocks that help water and oil play well together, called emulsifiers. It needs ingredients that holds everything together despite changes in temperature, like gums. It needs a good preservation system so bacteria don’t get in there. All this adds ingredients to your product and that’s not a bad thing either. It’s important to create a product that is homogenous, holds together without looking like curdled milk on the warmer days, and is safe for use without being a Petri dish for bacteria. An elegant product for sale!

Ingredients you don't want to see in your natural product

Natural products claim to be superior today because they do not use synthetically derived ingredients. What does that mean? Cosmetic formulation is a multi billion-dollar industry.
Not this!!
Most advancement in cosmetics through the 20th century involved synthesizing cosmetic building blocks and ingredients in labs that can then be used in making elegant cosmetics, such as shiny creams, velvety after-feel, smooth feeling. Even effective preservatives were developed.
Ultimately, by the end of the 20th century, the toxic nature of many of these ingredients came to light. Eventually bad press and public awareness of the toxicity of some of these ingredients spawned the need for plant based alternatives to these controversial ingredients.

Now natural products can be elegant creams, serums and lotions using plant based building blocks, stabilizers and preservatives. While they are more expensive than the cheaper, controversial versions, they are cruelty-free, environmentally friendly and healthy.

Still manufacturers still greenwash their products by adding one or two botanicals while keeping the long laundry list of toxic ingredients because they are way cheaper and easier to procure. You know about Parabens, sulphates and artificial fragrances but here are some others that you never want to see in natural, green and clean products and how to identify them.

Silicone (gives conditioning, silky feel) Forms an impermeable layer on skin that traps sweat/ bacteria etc. This leads to inflammation and accelerates acne for sensitive skin Dimethicone, Dimethiconol, Cyclomethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane; anything ending with “…cone” or “….ane”
Polyethylene glycol (PEG) Aside from being irritating to sensitive skin, toxic contaminants (ethylene oxide,1,4-dioxane) are released during manufacturing process. These contaminants are considered toxic/ carcinogenic by several Environmental Protection groups) Ingredient starting with "PEG...", example PEG-40 Stearate, PEG-8 etc
Phenoxyethanol (preservative substituted for paraben) It is an ethylene glycol - same family as PEG. It causes skin contact dermatitis, known to cause nervous system and reproductive damage. Japan has banned Phenoxyethanol from use in cosmetics Phenoxyethanol
Petroleum (Moisturizinbg ingredient) It is contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Exposure to PAHs over time can cause cancer. EU classifies Petrolatum as a carcinogen Petrolatum, Paraffin, Mineral oil, Polyamide
EDTA (commonly used to bind metal ions) Known irritant to skin, lungs and eyes. It causes respiratory issues when used in large quantities. This is highly probable in personal use due to reapplication of cosmetic products leading to cumulative EDTA on skin Disodium EDTA, Tetrasodium EDTA, Ethylenediaminetetraacetc Acid
Urea (moisturizer, skin softener) Breaks down in the productto release formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is an endocrine disruptor and neurotoxin Diazolidinyl Urea, Hydroxyethyl Urea

Many companies use these harmful ingredients as they are cheap/ easy to acquire, resulting in products that can be mass produced at a low cost. As consumers, it is up to us to stop believing that everything on the store shelf of a reputable store is perfectly safe and healthy for us. Reading up and getting informed is key. Don't be afraid to challenge a brand and ask them to explain their choices. It will only make them more accountable if they truly care about customer health.

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