How to Master Reading Beauty Product Labels

The skin is the largest organ of our body, so of course we want to be careful about what we are putting on it, but knowing which products will be the healthiest for our skin can be confusing.


The cosmetic industry has picked up on the desire for clean beauty products, and their marketing reflects that. This makes it challenging to know the difference between products that are actually good for us, and products whose labeling just make them look good for us. It is important to learn how to discern if you are really getting a non-toxic and healthy product for your skin or if it is just a bunch of marketing mumbo-jumbo.


Keep reading to learn about what to look for on product labels to give away whether you are actually getting the "real deal" or just a pretty and convincing package.


"Natural" and "Organic" Labeling

Let’s quickly unpack what it means for a body care product to be considered “organic” or “natural.” These both are great giveaways that the product has potential, but let's dig a little deeper.


What Exactly Does “Natural” Mean?

Generally, when the term “natural” is listed on the label, it refers to products with ingredients that come from living organisms, such as plants and animals. There is no legal definition for the term “natural” as it applies to cosmetics, skin care products and any other consumer product. The Food and Drug Administration still has not established a formal definition of the word “natural,” but they do not object to it being used on food labels as long as it is not misleading and doesn’t contain artificial flavors, added color, or synthetic substances .


Therefore, when a product is advertised as natural, it is not certified in any way. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have natural ingredients or that every company advertising their product as “natural” is being facetious. This just means that you need to take their claim with a grain of salt, do further investigating, and determine if it is a high quality product.


Look at the ingredients list and see if they actually look "natural" to you. If you feel like you are back in chemistry class with terms like butylparaben, oxybenzone, or retinyl palmitate, then it may be best to find a better option.


What Exactly Does “Organic” Mean?

Generally, organic refers to products or ingredients that are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, sewage sludge, GMOs, and antibiotics and growth hormones (when referring to animals). In the US, brands do not necessarily need to be certified to use the term “organic” on their labeling.

The US Department of Agriculture is the main organic certifying agency in the US. According to the USDA, for a brand to get certified, the companies “overall organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances,” and they have strict certification standards to make sure of this. You can read all about their certification standards here.

Even though the USDA certifies, it does not regulate. And the FDA has no power over regulating organic products as well. This means that someone could make a shampoo that has organic lavender in it, but also has some toxic ingredients, like 1-4 dioxane. Because of this, they might label their product as "Organic Lavender Herbal Shampoo." Sounds good right? But in all reality, if you actually look at the ingredients, you will see this "organic" product isn't all it is cracked up to be.

That is why it is good to look for the USDA Certified Organic seal on the label (see on the right).

There are different levels of labeling for organic products as well. “100 Percent Organic” means all ingredients are organically grown and harvested. Products labeled “Organic” only have 95% of the ingredients need to be organic. Even if it says “Made With Organic,” up to 30% of the ingredients do not have to be certified organic . It can be helpful to familiarize yourself with this information for when trying to purchase organic products so you know what you are getting.


Deciphering the Ingredients List

Here are a few things you should know when reading the ingredients list on a product!


First, the ingredients are listed in order of predominance. This means that the ingredient used in the greatest amount is listed first, and then continues in descending order, ending with the ingredient of the smallest amount.


Second, it is always good when you know what a lot of the ingredients are, and it doesn't look like a bunch of chemicals. Now, especially with makeup, sometimes ingredients that may look bad, are just using the scientific name for a natural product, so it can be helpful to use the EWG Skin Deep Database or the Think Dirty app to figure out what those ingredients are. When it comes to skin care products, if you don't know what most of the ingredients are, it is better to look for a different product.


Third, the ingredients should show whether they are organic or not. You typically want more of the first ingredients shown (since they make up more of the product) to be organic.

Lastly, as a rule of thumb, the fewer the ingredients, the better.


Takeaways

Here are some of the final tips and takeaways for you to become a label reading, clean-beauty-product-deciphering master!


1. Read the ingredients. Often marketing strategies are used to make a product look healthy, natural and organic, when it’s really a bunch of crap. Flip your product over and read the ingredients. See if you know what most of the ingredients are, like coconut oil, aloe vera, essential oils, etc. Often the fewer the ingredients, the better.


2. Look for USDA Organic Seals. The USDA “100 Percent Organic” or “Organic” seals. This means you know they are certified organic, so your chance of harmful chemicals being in your product is limited or non-existent. And remember, if I product isn't certified but still claims it's organic, you have more investigating to do. It may not be all it's cracked up to be,  but at the same time, I use organic products by some companies like Joylin Naturals and Flower and Bone Supply that are not certified. I have developed relationships with these companies and trust in their organic ingredient quality, so even though they aren't certified, they are still organic and have great products.


3. Use your resources. Check on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Site to see if your product is listed. This is my go to for every new product I try so I can check it's ingredients, as they can sometimes be confusing. You can look up a product or ingredient and see how much data they have on it and what their safety rating is! You can also find their seal on EWG verified products.


4. Dig deeper when a product is labeled "natural." Natural ingredients are much safer than synthetic ingredients, but you have to be diligent about making sure that the products ingredients are actually natural, since the term isn't regulated. This also means that there is the possibility of some chemicals and pesticides can be found in your products if it isn’t certified organic, but natural is almost always better than synthetic.


If you feel like it is too hard to read labels all on your own, try making your own products! That way you know exactly what is going into them You can check out some of my DIY Recipes here.


I know deciphering what’s safe and effective in the beauty and health industry can be challenging, but use your new found information to help you sift through the garbage to find what is healthy for your skin and body.


How do you choose what cosmetics and body care products to buy? Share below! Also please comment or message me if you have any further questions!

Resources

i. foodnavigator-usa.com. “'Natural' Will Remain Undefined, Says FDA.” Foodnavigator-Usa.com, 4 Jan. 2008, www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2008/01/04/Natural-will-remain-undefined-says-FDA.

ii.“Organic Labeling Standards.” Organic Labeling Standards | Agricultural Marketing Service, www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labeling-standards.