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How to Read a Label

How to Read a Label

Conscious consumers are beginning to recognize and reject chemical laden skincare (see here for some compelling reasons why:  Similar to the organic food movement, people are demanding an alternative that respects our health and our planet.  When consumers speak with their wallets, companies listen.  This can be seen through the awesome growth of the organic food market.  It’s a testament to the way informed decisions can influence an industry.

However, skincare is trickier than food and deciding which products are safe is more complicated than you think.  Much of this difficulty goes back to skincare regulations (or lack thereof).  When you buy organic food, you can be reasonably assured that it was grown without pesticides, genetic modification, hormone alteration, routine antibiotics, etc.  This is regulated by the government, companies are required to back up their claims and there are consequences for false claims – makes sense right?  Unfortunately, this is not the case in the skincare industry. In skincare, terms such as natural and organic are undefined, unregulated and frequently abused.  Therefore it helps to be a savvy label reader so you can determine which products are making false claims and which are actually worth your hard earned money.  Here are some tips to help identify products that are truly natural:

  • Certifications– A certification alone won’t protect you from all controversial ingredients but it’s a good start.  Here are some certifications worth looking for:
    • USDA organic certification –items marked with this seal are at least 95% organic (excluding water).  Items marked “made with organic ingredients” are at least 70% organic.  However, the USDA only covers food ingredients so many skincare products don’t qualify and you need others ways to determine their safety.
    • Oasis Certification – requires 90% organic content.
    • National Sanitation Foundation – requires at least 70% organic content.  Also regulates petrochemicals in the manufacturing process and synthetic preservatives.
    • Whole Foods Premium Body Care Seal – rejects synthetic fragrances, dyes and most questionable chemicals.  They do however allow some synthetic preservatives.
  • Ingredients to Avoid– it’s impossible to list every dangerous ingredient that may be lurking in your skincare products.  But there are ways to determine if a product is bogus, even if you’re not familiar with the specific ingredients.  I avoid (or at least question) ingredient lists that:
    • I can’t pronounce/sound like chemistry class
    • Contain the word laurel, laureth, or something similar
    • Use lots of prefixes/suffixes such as butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, poly-, propyl-, etc.
    • Contain abbreviations such as DEA, MEA, TEA, DMDM, PEG, BHT, BHA, etc.
    • List ingredients that are attached to or followed by a number (such as 1,4-Dioxane or PEG-8)
    • Include fragrance/parfum
  • Order of Ingredients – Ingredients are generally listed in order of quantity.  On average the top 1/3 of the ingredient list comprises 90-95% of the total product.
    • Be wary of chemical sounding ingredients, especially if they’re in the top tier of ingredients
    • Be skeptical if water is the primary ingredient.  Products containing water are much more prone to spoilage so they’re often stabilized with synthetic preservatives.  Review the ingredient list for nasties such as parabens, phenoxyethanol, urea, etc.  Furthermore, many certifications only require 70% organic content.  Water can be used to inflate a product’s organic percentage without really making it healthier.  Currently the USDA certification is the only one I know that adjusts for this.
  • Organic Ingredients – If a product claims to be organic, the individual ingredients should be labeled as such.  Again, check the ingredient list.
  • Quantity of Ingredients – a good product doesn’t require 40 ingredients, especially ones that are hard to pronounce.  A long ingredient list doesn’t necessarily mean a product is bad, but it’s certainly a red flag.
  • Terms to Look Out For
    • Catchy words such as natural, organic, hypoallergenic and derived from natural ingredients are often bogus.  Many companies simply insert a green word such as Botanicals or Organics into their name and everyone just assumes they’re all natural.
    • Be skeptical of these persuasive claims and instead base your decision on their ingredient list and certifications.

All of this can be hard to remember.  Some people keep a list of common ingredients to avoid and keep it in their purse or on the fridge (here’s a link to some of the most common nasties:  I personally find this annoying and either misplace the list or get annoyed by the clutter.  So I just try to remember these basics:

  1. Don’t be fooled by green sounding names or claims.
  2. Look for products that have pronounceable ingredients.  Avoid products with massive ingredient lists and ingredients that sound like chemistry class (especially at the top of the ingredient list).
  3. If possible look for independent certifications such as USDA organic, Oasis, NSF and Whole Foods Premium Body Care Seal

These three basic rules will help you eliminate most of the junk from your skincare regimen.   In this way you can significantly reduce your families chemical exposure and be kind to the earth.  Each purchase adds up and collectively creates real change in the skincare industry.  Get ready to make a difference!


This post was inspired by the book, Skinny Bitch: Home, Beauty & Style by Kim Barnouin:  If you want to increase your awareness of the hidden toxins lurking in your home as well as steps you can take to avoid them, this is a good and surprisingly funny read.

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