How to Decipher Cosmetic Labels

by Gourmet Skin Bar February 18, 2016 5 min read


How to Decipher Cosmetic Labels

Have you ever tried reading that list of ingredients printed on your latest beauty buy? Were you trying to remember your high school chemistry or Latin? Unless you are a scientist or otherwise familiar with the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) (or have kept up with your Latin, because some of it actually is in Latin), you probably felt as confused as most consumers.

Sample cosmetic label

It's probably that small on the packaging too.

In an unregulated beauty world, it's up to you

Like many others, you might have been ignoring product ingredient lists altogether and thought it must be safe if it's from ABC brand or sold by XYZ department store. But it's no secret that the US$460+ billion global cosmetic industry is largely unregulated. This means that you can't just make the assumption that a beauty product is safe simply because it is sold at your favourite store.  

Most marketing terms are not legally defined (including 'organic' and 'natural'), so the best way to know what you are putting on your skin is to do the homework yourself. Unfortunately, even reading ingredient labels only gets you so far - companies are allowed to leave some ingredients considered to be trade secrets off the label, like 'fragrance'. According to the Environmental Working Group, when you see 'fragrance' on a label, this could mean an extra 14 hidden compounds on average for a product.  

Help! Information overload and everyone is saying different things

There are plenty of wonderful organisations around the world who can make doing this homework a whole lot easier. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is just one of many who are working hard to raise awareness and help educate consumers.


There is huge debate within the industry, many with their own agendas, about how dangerous suspected carcinogens and other questionable ingredients actually are in your beauty and other personal care products. Ultimately, we think it is up to you to decide what is acceptable for you and your family. 


Stats about Cosmetic Ingredients


Cut to the chase - what are those labels saying?

Product labels offer plenty of other valuable information like expiry dates, place and date of manufacture, certifications, pledges against animal testing etc. As most of those are a bit more self explanatory, we're focusing on the ingredient list in this post. We've tried to break down the key principles to follow when attempting to decipher product ingredient lists in our infographic below. 


Infographic: how to read cosmetic ingredient labels - Gourmet Skin Bar


After reading our infographic, were you able to work out that this leading brand's "vanilla" body lotion:

· comprises mostly of water, glycerin and mineral oil (all low cost "filler" ingredients);

· contains a commonly used paraben that has been linked to cancer; and

· contains vanilla, natural butter and other plant extracts each comprising less than 1% of the formula (actually, we know it's as low as 0.4% each, because regulations recommend that concentration levels for individual parabens be limited to that amount)?

3 questions to think about at the beauty counter/checkout page

Look at the ingredients list and ask yourself:

1.  Am I allergic or previously had skin reactions to any of these ingredients?

If you know the answer to this question, then it is easy to simply avoid products containing that ingredient altogether, or at least where the ingredient is present in the formula at higher concentrations.

If you are not sure, and/or have started to notice a pattern of breakouts, redness and other skin sensitivities to particular products, it's time to hit the restart button on your skin care and start paying attention to what is ending up on your body. Being in a position to make these informed choices is the first step to a safe, healthy skin care regime.

Our tip - narrow down the culprit(s) by using a small number of skin care products and/or products with very simple formulas. We know it's tempting to try out your newest beauty goodies all at once - but do try to introduce only one new product at a time into your skin care routine. 

2. What am I buying this product for? Is it for a particular benefit or ingredient?

If you are looking to buy a coconut body lotion, for example, you'll definitely want to see coconut oil before the preservatives (otherwise you're getting less than 1%) in the formula. You also probably wouldn't want to see mineral oil near the top list, which is a very cheap 'filler' ingredient with no real benefits for your skin (keeping in mind that untreated or mildly treated mineral oil is also widely considered a no no, and you can't tell this from the label).

Similarly, if you are buying a face cream because of the "youth-enhancing and glow-inducing" effects from argan oil, you will want to see argan oil feature higher up in the ingredient list. For some other plant extracts and essential oils, it may not be as straightforward - some are active in very small concentrations and should not be high up in the list, or even above that 1% threshold. 

The pie chart in the infographic gives you some benchmarks to compare against. 

Our glossary of common natural beauty ingredients (coming very soon!), together with our product pages should help you understand the claimed benefits of products at GSB.

 3. Is this safe for me?

There is endless debate about the use of parabens, petrochemicals, formaldehyde (yup - a common skin care ingredient!), phenoxyethanol, DHA, DEA and PEG ingredients, synthetic fragrances and more in cosmetics. There appears to be consensus on some ingredients and some have been banned outright (though it is eye opening to see the huge difference in numbers banned in the U.S. vs the EU). For many common skin care ingredients though, it can be confusing to listen to such wildly opposing views. We'll be looking at some of these controversial ingredients more closely next week.

Practice reading labels and start deciding for yourself

As you become more familiar with reading labels, it won't take more than a glance to work out whether the product contains any ingredients on your personal 'ban' list. As a business, we have made the decision to curate only products that contain 100% naturally-led ingredients (remember, everything is a chemical!), so that there are no grey areas for our customers.

Products are more than labels however, and you can't judge a formula (for its effectiveness anyway) by its label. We choose only intelligently formulated green and clean products for GSB, but at the end of the day, everyone's skin is different. To take some of the guesswork out of it (we're assuming that you read the full ingredient lists on our product pages, of course!), we offer free product samples with each order as well as plenty of trial and travel sizes of our favourite products.

How did we do with this guide? Are you on your way to being a pro at reading cosmetic labels? Don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions about this post or anything else.

Gourmet Skin Bar
Gourmet Skin Bar

Curators of good-for-you beauty brands. On a mission for #HappySkin.

2 Responses

peter gomes
peter gomes

November 12, 2020

Thank you for sharing your favorite products with us. I learned a lot and I am looking forward to trying many of them.
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February 21, 2016

I regard myself as a cautious label reader and this is very informative!

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