5 Rules On How To Read Cosmetic Labels Like A Pro


As we get more health conscious and aware of some notorious chemicals in our beauty items, it is important that we know how to accurately read and understand the labels or perhaps just know the important points to take with you on your next beauty shopping. Here is a simple list of 5 rules that will help you read and choose right.

Rule 1: Forget The Front Cover of The Products

Yes, It is the first thing you see and it plays a role in capturing your attention which is important for marketing purposes, however you need to move past the cover very quickly otherwise you get trapped with these bait words. Some cosmetic and beauty products brands have mastered the act of enticing customers with front labels showcasing an ingredient as a key item whereas it may only be a tiny portion that is eventually ineffective for the purpose. A typical example is when the front reads ‘with hyaluronic acid’ and then checking the back you realise it is only 0.1% contained.

Just remember the front is just to lure you, so if you have to give them some attention, focus on the back label. Bear in mind that this also applies to all products that has any type of claim including organic, natural, or preservative free. As a side on the case of preservative – cosmetics need a form a preservative for stability. No one wants to apply a culture of bacteria on their skin or use rancid oils in their products.

Rule 2: INCI / Ingredients Are Written In Descending Order

Cosmetic labels can be hard to understand at first glance, especially if you have no idea what to look for. Here is how to start – According to the rules the ingredients or INCI which stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) are placed in accordance to their concentration with the highest content on top of the list. So when you look at the product and the first item is Aqua (water), you know it’s the highest content (very common for lotions). In different types of product this changes, between, oils, butters, petrolatum etc. Take some time to peruse through the list and get comfortable with it, but remember as you go down the list so does the concentration and it gets more interesting now.

Rule 3: Know the 1% Markup Line

This is not an easy task if you are not a formulator, biochemist or cosmetician, but let’s break this down for you to understand. Basically the ingredients are listed by predominance 99%, 98%, 90%, 85%, 50%, 40, 30, 20, 10, 9, 8… but once it hits the 1% point – the rest of the ingredient can be listed in any order, this means an ingredient which is 0.50% can appear before a 0.75% ingredient. In this section is where you can find the colours, fragrance and additives because this is mostly used as a trade or product secret. Since it is not regulated brands can make a mix here and label it as fragrance making sure no other brand can reproduce or copy the item.
However it is required that blended ingredients have to be listed separately and follow the placement of predominance.
Depending on the cosmetic item the 1% markup can be determined by the presence of certain ingredient that not allowed above 1% for example phenoxyethanol within the Europe is not allowed above 1% in cosmetics and so anything listed under such an item is definitely below 1%. Other examples can be sodium hydroxide, butylene gycol or xanthan gum which is usually in very tiny quantity as it is just a thickener.

See youtube video above to understand the 1% markup line.

Rule 4: Make Sure the Active Ingredient Is listed In Top 5 – 10 Items

Once you know what ingredient you seek and the purpose for it, now is time to make sure you get the most out of your cosmetics. A good way to do this is to search for products that have the active ingredient you seek listed amongst the first 5-10 items. Cosmetic label differ between brands and the variety of products but since the INCI rule of predominance has to be followed across all brands finding your king ingredient is easy.
With this it is also good to remember that some chemical ingredients cannot be used in very high concentration making it unlikely that this will be the predominant on the list.

Rule 5: Watch out For 3rd Party Certification

Some brands go an extra mile to get external certification for their products and a mark or symbol can be added to label once the process of certification is cleared, for example the COSMOS ORGANIC seal on the Garnier Organic. However some brands create symbols themselves to give an impression of a quality brand. So don’t be fooled by a brand with numerous symbols since there is no way of knowing if all of it is official even though they might not be making fake claims.

In another post we will discuss the different official symbols out there on the cosmetic labels.