We’re always telling you to read the labels of your skincare products and cosmetics, but do you actually know HOW to correctly read and interpret a label?
To be honest, it’s not rocket science. Here’s a simple formula that makes it really easy.
Breakdown of a skincare label
If you imagine the label is roughly divided into three parts, the ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity:
1. The top third of the label: this area lists the ingredients that constitute the majority of the product. These ingredients usually make up around 80-95% of the product and the common ingredient you’ll find here is water, or aqua.
2. The middle third of the label: this constitutes about 4–12% of the product and is made up of oils, actives, emulsifiers and surfactants.
3. The bottom third of the label: this makes up around 1–8% of the product and consists of preservatives, fragrances, stabilisers and label claims.
Exposing labelling tricks and tactics
Because ingredients are listed in descending order, by the time you get to the lower third of the label, some of those ingredients could be just label claims. For example, if a product is boasting that it contains argan oil, but the argan oil is listed way down the bottom, it’s probably a label claim.
What’s a label claim?
It’s usually a teeny weeny drop of some sort of magic-make-you-younger oil that a company can boast about on the label, but because it’s present in such a small amount, it’s going to do exactly ZILCH for your skin.
A product might have 15 plant extracts listed but only one drop of each in the formulation.
For ingredients to be effective, they need to be present in substantial quantities, so if a skincare company is selling you on its stardust serum, it had better be listed right up there in the top part of the label.
5 essential facts you need to know when interpreting skincare labels:
- Don’t be hoodwinked by this phrase: BOTANICAL SOURCE. What does that mean exactly? Well, I can’t tell you because it could mean anything. What I do know is that it was once, perhaps many aeons ago, part of a plant. But you have no way of knowing how much it has been manipulated and messed around with in the lab by the time it reaches the bottle (unless the product is certified organic of course). So if there’s a strange sounding ingredient you’ve never heard of before, followed by the words ‘botanical source’, does that mean it’s pure and natural as a rosebud in spring? Nope. So don’t be fooled.
- It’s often easier to pick out the really scary toxic chemicals because they have unpronounceable names that sound like gobbledegook or are accompanied by numbers. For example, PEG-7 or glyceryl cocoate polyethylene glycol (7), diethanoloamine or phenylenediamine.
- Price is often indicative of the quality of a product. Water costs about 80 cents a litre, so products made up mainly of water will be cheaper than products that are predominantly plant- or hydrosol-based, which cost 10 to 20 times more to produce.
- Watch out for products containing EMULSIFYING WAX, which a lot of companies still use. It sounds innocent enough but it is an incorrect INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) listing. ‘Emulsifying wax’ could be anything and often contains nasties like polyethelene glycol (PEG).
- Truly pure botanicals will carry the Latin name, for example when I use certified organic aloe vera I list it on my products as Aloe barbadensis.
If you find an ingredient that sounds suspect, search the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database. It’s a goldmine of information. Visit www.ewg.org/skindeep/