How To Break the Secret Language of Beauty Product Ingredients


Ethyl Phenol, Glycerin, and Sodium Benzoate- if you look on the ingredients list of your cleanser, moisturizer, or toner, you’ll likely see some of these words on the label. What do they actually mean? How can you tell if they’re safe to use? Although you may think that the products you buy have been tested and regulated for safety, the reality is that there is very little regulation required for manufacturers of personal care products.

Unlike the ingredients that go into your food, the FDA doesn’t require the approval of cosmetic ingredients, before they’re sold to you in your products. Instead, the companies who make the products are in charge of self-regulating their safety, which as we can all agree on, leaves a lot to desire in the way of bias.

This means that there is no third-party making sure that the ingredients in your makeup, soaps, skin care products, nail polishes, or shampoos are actually safe to consume. Scary, right?

Thankfully, you can learn how to be your own regulator of personal care products, by being choosy about what goes onto, and ultimately, into, your body. Consider this your starting point to understanding common ingredients in personal care products, so that the next time you're standing in the beauty aisles of Sephora, Ulta, or the drugstore, you can make an informed purchase as an educated and empowered consumer.

Not all long names are bad.

We automatically assume that if we can’t pronounce an ingredient, it must be artificial, and therefore, bad for us. Many ingredients will include parenthesis after its scientific name is listed, with the “aka English” version that’s easy to understand. An example of this would be Cocos nucifera (Coconut Oil). Obviously, coconut oil isn’t a funky ingredient, even though it’s scientific name may raise an internal red flag. When in doubt, Google is your friend.

Understand the amounts.

Most labels don’t tell you the exact quantities of each ingredient, since those are usually kept as trade secrets. But, you can get around this by knowing that cosmetic ingredients are listed in in order from the most to the least. So, the first ingredient you see on a label is what that product is mostly made of and the last is what it contains the least of. If one of the first few ingredients is iffy, you should definitely avoid said product at all costs.

Fragrance has a hidden meaning.

You probably think that “fragrance” or “parfum” refers to some type of yummy smelling agent, right? Nope, not in the case of cosmetic ingredients. Fragrance actually refers to the secret formulas held as intellectual property of said company. Therefore, it could really contain anything and they technically don’t have to tell you about it. Hidden ingredients are usually not those that you want to be putting onto, and ultimately into, your body.

Know your preservatives.

Most beauty products on the market contain preservatives, which allow them to have a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, preservatives are also the opposite of good for you, and should also be avoided at all costs.

Here’s a list of cosmetic ingredients that you should avoid:

  • Any words containing “paraben”
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • Methylisothiazolinone
  • Triclosan
  • Triclocarban
  • Triethanolamine (or "TEA")
  • Any words containing “PEG”
  • Any words with an “-eth” in the middle

Want this list for your next shopping trip? Click here to download the infographic.

It might seem difficult, but after a while you’ll start to automatically be able to identify these ingredients when you look at a label.

Look for these good labels.

Even though a lot of these tips involve avoiding certain words or ingredients, there’s actually some labels that you should look for, when inspecting a product.

  • USDA Organic: A product must be certified by the USDA in order to get this label, which means it’s been thoroughly inspected to contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. Also, any product labeled “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% of organic ingredients, so make sure to understand this difference. The only time a product has all organic ingredients is when it’s labeled as being “100% organic.”
  • The Leaping Bunny: If a product and its ingredients are cruelty-free and not at all tested on animals, it will sport the Leaping Bunny Cruelty Free label. If you care about animal welfare, this is a label to look for!

Although these standards aren’t perfect, they’re certainly a step in the right direction. You might as well be as safe as possible right?

The next time you go to the beauty counter, go armored with the knowledge of an informed consumer! Being choosy about which products you buy might seem like a lot of work, but is a crucial step in saving the health of the environment, our planet, and ultimately, you.


featured image by Gal Meets Glam