How to read an ingredients label

ingredients label
Get to know and understand your cosmetic labels

Don’t be fooled by a product name or description – get to know and understand your cosmetic labels. It is the only way to truly know what is in the products you are using, and how safe they really are. This guide will help you do just that.

Many products contain ingredients you may prefer to avoid, ingredients that can be sensitising and irritating, or ingredients that can even be harmful.

To really know what is and what isn’t in your product, you need to read the whole label.

Understanding the ingredients label(INCI list)

In addition to the product name and basic characteristics, a cosmetic label will also include ingredients in the product – the INCI list. INCI stands for “International nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients” and is a naming system for ingredients based on scientific nomenclature.

Plant ingredients are easy to spot because they are listed with their latin names (always two words) and a common name in brackets, eg rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) oil, which is rosemary essential oil; helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil, which is sunflower oil.

There are also plenty of common or naturally derived ingredients that have complicated names, but are safe to use and even have an important function in the product. Here are few examples:

  • Tocopherol: vitamin E, it protects the product from going rancid.
  • Cetyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol: a fatty alcohol that stabilizes emulsions and has a moisturizing action. It is not drying as pure alcohol (ethanol).
  • Citric acid: even though it has the word ‘acid’ in it, it is not harmful. It regulates the pH levels of the product and also protects it from microbial contamination.

Ingredient order

The order the ingredients are listed on the label is important. Ingredients are listed in descending order from greatest amount to least amount present in the product (except ingredients present at a concentration of less than 1%; those can be listed in any order).


At the end of an INCI list you will find the allergens listed. These allergens are constituents of natural essential oils or synthetic fragrances. There are 26 possible allergens including geraniol, limonene and linalool. Some companies mark with an asterisk or in italics which ingredients are essential oils allergens. It is worth becoming familiar with the common allergens.

Abbreviated ingredient lists

Sometimes, especially on online shops or brand websites, companies do not list all of the ingredients, instead providing just the ‘key ingredients’ or ‘active ingredients’, and leaving the rest out. This makes the ingredient list quite short and very appealing too – it usually contains natural plant-based ingredients. To find out the full list of ingredients you may need to consult the label on the product itself, where a brand is required to list everything.

Ingredients to Avoid

Did you know? .....that up to 60% of what you put on your skin is absorbed into your body?

We know that the skin is not a waterproof barrier but a permeable organ absorbing thousands of substances a year directly into the bloodstream. Many people are unaware of the synthetic chemicals and harmful ingredients that they put on to their skin every day of their lives.

If this concerns us at all, we have to learn to read the ingredients listed on the label if we want natural and pure products without the potential to harm us. We list below some of the harmful ingredients that are often added to cosmetics today. There are many others to look out for but these are some of the worst offenders.


  1. Methyl/Propyl/Butyl/Ethyl Paraben
  2. Triethanolamine, (TEA) Diethanolamine (DEA)
  3. Petrolatum
  4. Methylisothiazolinone (MI / MIT)
  5. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate/Laureth Sulphate
  6. Synthetic colours
  7. Synthetic fragrances
  8. Oxybenzone
  1. Methyl/Propyl /Butyl/Ethyl Parabens

Found in: makeup, moisturisers, shaving gel, shampoo and spray tan products

Preservatives that inhibit microbial growth to extend shelf life of product. May cause allergic reactions, skin rashes and kill the intestinal flora so vital to the cleanliness of the intestines. They may damage health by inhibiting the vital action of natural enzymes in your cells. Recent research suggests parabens could act as a foreign hormone-like substance and cause a host of problems, including cancer.

There are several studies linking parabens, which mimic oestrogen, to breast cancer, skin cancer and decreased sperm count, but has not ruled that it is harmful. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders. Parabens have been found in high concentrations in breast cancer tissues. Widely used even though they are known to be toxic.

  • Triethanolamine, (TEA) Diethanolamine (DEA)

Often used in cosmetics as emulsifiers and/or foaming agents. They can cause allergic reactions, eye irritation and dryness of hair and skin. DEA and TEA are "amines" (ammonia compounds) and can form cancer-causing nitrosamines when they come in contact with nitrates. Toxic if absorbed into the body over a long period of time.

  • Petrolatum

This is commonly used in lip balms, hand and skin care products to form a moisture barrier. Clogs skin, keeping it from taking in oxygen and releasing toxins. Highly acne-producing. May contain carcinogens. May slow down normal cell development which in turn can age your skin. Can cause sun sensitivity and chapping, (which are the very problems it is supposed to prevent).

Also known as petroleum jelly, this mineral oil derivative is used for its emollient properties in cosmetics. It has no nutrient value for the skin and can interfere with the body's own natural moisturising mechanism, leading to dryness and chapping. It often creates the very conditions it claims to alleviate. Manufacturers use petrolatum because it is unbelievably cheap.

  • Methylisothiazolinone (MI / MIT) & Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI / CMIT)

Used in wet wipes, cleansers, deodorants, gels, suncare products and shaving foams, as well as household cleaning products. In 2013, one of the biggest stories in skincare health concerned the preservatives MI & MCI, which became notorious after it was found that they were to blame for a worrying increase in skin sensitivities.

The British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) and the British Society of Cutaneous Allergy (BSCA) issued warnings of a new potential contact allergy epidemic to chemical preservatives used in cosmetics, toiletries and household products – methylisothiazolinone (MI or MIT)

  • Sodium Laurel Sulphate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES)

Found in: shampoo, body wash, foundation, face wash, mouthwash and toothpaste

SLS has been shown to cause or contribute to: skin irritation, canker sores, disruptions of skin’s natural oil balance and eye damage. It is also widely believed to be a major contributor to acne (especially cystic acne) around the mouth and chin.

SLES can be contaminated with a very potent carcinogen; dioxin and is very easily absorbed through the skin. It is slightly less irritating than SLS but may cause more drying. Both SLS and SLES may cause potentially carcinogenic formations of nitrates and dioxins to form in shampoos and cleansers by reacting with other product ingredients.

  • Synthetic Colours

Artificial colours labelled "FD and C" followed by a colour are coal-tar derivatives and not plant-based. FD and C Red No. 6 and Green No. 6 are suspected of causing cancer. Used to make cosmetics "pretty," synthetic colors, along with synthetic hair dyes, should be avoided at all costs. They will be labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number. Example: FD&C Red No. 6 / D&C Green No. 6. Many synthetic colors can be carcinogenic. If a cosmetic contains them, don't use it.

  • Synthetic Fragrances

These may contain hundreds of chemicals. There is no way to know what they are as the label simply says 'Fragrance'. Some of the problems caused by these chemicals are headaches, dizziness, rashes, violent coughing, vomiting and skin irritation. The synthetic fragrances used in cosmetics can have as many as 200 ingredients. There is no way to know what the chemicals are, since on the label it will simply read "fragrance." Some problems caused by these chemicals include headaches, dizziness, rash, hyperpigmentation, violent coughing, vomiting, skin irritation the list goes on. Advice: Don't buy a cosmetic that has the word "fragrance" on the ingredients label.

  • Oxybenzone

Found in: sunscreen

Oxybenzone is one of the highest-risk chemicals found in sunscreen. It acts like oestrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals and is associated with endometriosis in women. Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites may disrupt the hormone system. Opt for sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium oxide or avobenzone instead.

Make sure your product ingredients are safe