Part of living a healthy lifestyle is making sure we know what we eat and what’s in the products we use in our household. Supermarkets offer us plenty of tempting, tasty food options full of unhealthy additives, which is why more and more of us are reading labels on products before they buy them. But not many of us realise that we should be doing the same with cosmetics, as some ingredients added to our shampoos, soaps or moisturisers can be harmful for our health or environment. Here’s what you should be looking for when reading cosmetics compositions.
Why you should read cosmetics ingredient labels
Everyday, we are being bombarded with advertisements telling us which products are the best, nicest, and newest. Supermarket shelves are lined with beautifully packaged bottles with inviting slogans, however we shouldn’t trust everything we see. Unfortunately, just because the message on a cream says it contains such and such ingredient, it doesn’t always mean that’s true. Why is it important to know what’s in our products?
- Be aware of misleading messages. Unfortunately, manufacturers of cosmetic products’ often take advantage of our small attention to detail and encourage us to buy things that aren’t always good for us. Most catchy slogans found on cosmetics packaging or in advertisements are just part of a marketing strategy and bare little to no truth at times. Even though there are some regulations around what you can write on cosmetic labels, the law unfortunately doesn’t fully prohibit having confusing language or messaging. For that reason, any given cosmetics label will often read quite a loose interpretation of its effect. Knowing how to read the ingredients of cosmetics will let you verify whether or not the producers are telling the truth.
- Know if the product is worth the price. When you read the ingredients of a cosmetics product, you can be sure whether it’s worth buying and if it’s worth the price tag. Sometimes, the ingredients being advertised are barely in the cosmetic’s composition.
- Avoid possible allergies. If you have sensitive skin or are allergic to some ingredients, it’s definitely worth reading cosmetic compositions so that you can avoid products that could potentially harm your skin.
- Care about our planet. Reading product labels is also important for our environment. When it comes to ingredients of food products, we should avoid buying ones that contain ingredients which are harmful for the planet, e.g. palm oil which is a major cause in deforestation. You can find out more about reading food labels here. The case is the same when it comes to cosmetics, as some producers use ingredients which are known to be very bad for the environment. By knowing what’s in the cosmetics you buy, you can avoid choosing ones that are harmful for our world.
What should be on a cosmetics label?
Manufacturers of cosmetic products must follow labelling requirements. In Australia, all producers need to follow The Trade Practices (Consumer Product Information Standards) and requirements as set out by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
As stated by Product Safety Australia, these are some of the requirements of labelling cosmetic products compositions:
- Product ingredient information should be available to consumers at the point of sale.
- The listing of product ingredients is required on the container or on the product itself, if not packed in a container.
- When listing ingredients, the ingredients need to appear in descending order calculated by either mass or volume.
- Alternatively, the mandatory standard allows for the listing of ingredients in the following way:
- ingredients (except colour additives) in concentrations of 1 per cent or more in descending order by volume or mass
- followed by ingredients (except for colour additives) in concentrations of less than 1 per cent in any order
- followed by colour additives in any order.
What substances should we avoid?
It’s not easy to find the perfect cosmetics that contain only good, natural ingredients that do not harm the environment. That said, you can still reach for the product that has the least amount of undesirable ingredients. Here’s a list of cosmetics ingredients you should try to avoid:
This can be found under many different names on product labels, including: Aluminium oxide, Aluminium starch octenylsuccinate, Aluminium Chloride, Aluminium Chlorohydrate, Aluminium Chlorohydrex, Aluminium Chlorohydrex PG, Aluminium Distearate, Aluminium Sesquichlorohydrate, Aluminium Stearate, Aluminium Tristearate, Aluminium Zirconium Trichlorohydrex GLY. Aluminium is a very popular ingredient in cosmetics, but the highest concentration is found in deodorants. Aluminium can narrow sweat channels, which strengthens the properties of antiperspirants. However, such a process clogs the sebaceous glands and can lead to inflammation. In addition, when using spray deodorants that include aluminium, some of the spray can seep into the skin and exceed the safe dosage in the body, exposing us to the formation of cancerous changes.
SLS and SLES
This can be found under other names on product labels, including: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), is a synthetic substance, and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) is ethoxylated sodium lauryl sulfate, which is a derivative of SLS. Both of these substances are popular ingredients in cosmetics with cleansing properties, like shower gels and bath lotions, shampoos, toothpastes, hair dyes, and shaving foams. SLS and SLES can also be found in washing-up liquids and detergents.
SLS may cause irritation of eyes and skin. For this reason, it is not recommended for those who have sensitive or allergy prone skin. You should also avoid SLS if you suffer from scalp diseases or excessive hair loss. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate used in excess may cause skin dryness and irritation.
Can also be listed on product labels under: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, and Buthylparaben. Parabens are almost essential ingredients in cosmetics, used as preservatives. It’s thanks to parabens that most cosmetics products can last so long. That said, some types of parabens can be bad for our health. By showing a hormone-like effect, parabens can contribute to fertility problems or acne. Propylparaben and Iosbutylparaben are the ones to really keep an eye out for. Both should be avoided at all costs because they’re associated with certain types of cancer.
Found on product labels under other names like: Cyclopentasiloxsane, Cyclohexasiloxane, Cyclomethicone, and Dimethicone. Silicones are ingredients that are very popular in the production of hair and body cosmetics. They work by covering the hair or skin with a thin and shiny layer, which quickly improves appearance and masks all imperfections. That said, they do not disappear. Silicones can cause acne and dehydrate the skin. They can also block other ingredients from being absorbed by our body due to the layer formed on the skin.
Other names found on product labels include: DBP (dibutyl phthalate), DINP (diisononyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate), DMP (dimethyl phthalate), BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate), DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate), and DIDP (diisodecyl phthalate). Phthalates are used in many consumer products like household items, medical devices, packaging, and toys. Some phthalates can also be used in cosmetic products. The most popular from the group is diethyl phthalate (DEP), which can be found in perfumes, hair products, nail polishes, deodorants, and air fresheners.
Some phthalates have shown harmful effects in animal studies, most notably reproductive toxicity. They can also be linked with endometriosis and early puberty. Additionally, phthalates can cause reduction of fertility in males. For these reasons, selected phthalates have been banned from use in cosmetics.
This can also be found under the name TALC. Talcum powder is used as a drying agent in the production of powders, ointments, and soaps. In the pharmaceutical industry, talcum powder is also used in the production of drugs. Talcum powder is often added to children’s cosmetics products, but unfortunately it is not completely safe. Talc is approved for use only under certain conditions – it cannot be used in any amount and on all parts of the body. Some scientists link talcum powder to ovarian cancer when used regularly for a long period of time in the genital area. That said, it is difficult to prove for sure whether or not talcum powder can be dangerous, but it’s worth being careful with its use. If you choose products with talcum powder, try to find ones that are high quality and use them consciously.
There are over 200 different names that can be used for palm oil, including PKO – Palm Kernel Oil, PKO fractionations: Palm Kernel Stearin (PKs); Palm Kernel Olein (PKOo), PHPKO – Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil, FP(K)O – Fractionated Palm Oil, OPKO – Organic Palm Kernel Oil, Palmitate or Ascorbyl Palmitate, Palmate, Elaeis Guineensis, Glyceryl Stearate, Stearic Acid.
The use of palm oil in food and cosmetics products has been a highly debated topic all over the world. The issue with adding palm oil to cosmetic compositions is not its bad influence on our health, but its harmful effect on the environment.
Palm oil in cosmetics can be used as a moisturising, softening, or foaming ingredient. It contains powerful antioxidants that help fight free radicals, visibly reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and cleanse the skin without leaving it feeling greasy. It is mainly used in soaps, body lotions, and anti-aging products.
Unfortunately, all the positive properties of palm oil disappear when it is refined or hydrogenated. Oil that is processed in this way loses its vitamin A content, and most of its vitamin E. What’s more concerning, however, is that palm oil is currently used on a massive scale by the cosmetics industry. This contributes to the destruction of rainforests and wildlife.
What to look for in cosmetic product ingredients?
If you want a product that’s good for your health as well as the environment, you should look for the following substances. It’s also important that these substances listed below are placed at the beginning of a composition and not towards the end. The further away they are from the start of the ingredients list, the less their content and weaker their effect.
- Natural and essential oils. Examples of names found on product labels: Argania Spinosa, Kernel Oil, Olea Europaea Olive Oil. Essential oils were used as cosmetic products for centuries. They have many valuable antibacterial and moisturising properties and are less likely to cause allergic reactions. You can find natural oils in face creams, soaps, shampoos, and body lotions.
- Plant extracts. Examples of names found on product labels: Vitis Vinifera Seed Extract, Ginkgo Biloba Leaf Extract, Aloe Vera Leaf Extract. Plant extracts are elements created by extracting plants with water, alcohols, glycols, or oils. They can be in the form of liquid or a powder. Plant extracts are valuable active ingredients of cosmetic products, and can be used to slow down the aging process, moisturise, eliminate free radicals and discolouration, soothe irritations, and improve skin tone.
- Glycerin. This is a highly moisturising substance that is very popular in the cosmetic world. Because of its hydrophilic properties, glycerin can be found in many skin care products like moisturisers, hand creams, and body lotions. Glycerin makes cosmetics sticky and prevents them from drying out. In face cleansing foams, glycerin neutralises the drying effect of detergents.
- Hyaluronic acid. Names found on product labels include Sodium hyaluronate. This is another strongly moisturising substance that is popular in the production of cosmetics. Hyaluronic acid acts on the surface of skin and prevents the loss of moisture. It can be used alone as a moisturising serum, but is often mixed with an oil matched to the needs of the skin and used as an ingredient of face care products.
- Vitamins Examples of names found on product labels include: Vitamin C – Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin E – Tocopherol, Vitamin A – Retinyl Palmitate or Retinol, Vitamin B3 – Niacinamide.
Manufacturers of cosmetics widely add both fat-soluble vitamins (E, A, F) and water-soluble vitamins (C, B5) to their products. These can be used as moisturisers, antioxidants, emollients, and UV filters, substances that block the formation of harmful compounds in the skin.
Main rules on how to read the composition of a cosmetic label
Once you know which ingredients to avoid and which are good for your body, all you need to do is follow these simple rules:
- Start from the beginning of the ingredients list. The names of cosmetic ingredients are placed in descending order. That means the substances used in the highest amounts are listed first. For example, if argan oil is listed at the very end of an ingredients list, it means the product will only contain very small amounts of it. Of course, some ingredients are not needed in large amounts, but if a product’s packaging is promoting an ingredient then it shouldn’t be listed at the very end.
- Don’t believe everything you read. We all take notice of nice looking, colourful cosmetic products that call to us from the supermarket shelves. However, the message you read on the front of a face cream or shampoo bottle isn’t always 100% true. What you should really be paying attention to is the product label and its composition. Of course, in most cases all the ingredients are written in tiny letters at the back of the packaging, but it’s worth taking a moment to check the composition of cosmetics you want to buy. Many manufacturers use misleading marketing messages on their product boxes, and the only way you’ll find out is by understanding the ingredients list and picking out the good cosmetics from the bad ones.
- Avoid products with a long list of components. The golden rule that you should always follow is: the shorter the ingredients list, the better. If a product’s composition doesn’t make you think of chemistry lessons, it’s probably not bad for you.
- Check other brands. Shopping in supermarkets is very convenient and fast, but when it comes to cosmetics it might be worth looking at some lesser known brands that aren’t in the supermarket. There are many small businesses that create healthy, natural cosmetics products prepared in a traditional way without added chemicals. You can find many of these brands online or in local health or organic stores. Cosmetics from major brands may look better and be more popular, but that doesn’t mean that they’re of a better quality.