How To Read Labels

Do you know how to read ingredient labels? The FDA requires that all food products list each ingredient. Cosmetic products have labeling requirements too, but they tend to get a bit fuzzy. Here are a few tips and pointers to consider when buying personal care products. 

  • Note the order in which ingredients are listed. Labeling laws require manufacturers to list the ingredients in descending order of volume. In other words, ingredients that constitute the highest percentage of the product are listed first. This is important to remember when choosing quality skincare products. If the first ingredient in your lotion is water, there is a good chance that it will evaporate from the skin quickly - leaving you just as dry after a good handwashing as you were before you applied the lotion. 
  • Beware the term "FRAGRANCE." This term is often used at the bottom of an ingredient list to mask harmful proprietary ingredients or additives that the manufacturer does not wish to disclose. 
  • Soaps, laundry detergents, cleaners, etc... are not REQUIRED to list any ingredients! Seek out companies that supply this information.
  • Many labels include the scientific ingredient name with the conventional ingredient name in parenthes. For example shea butter may be listed like this: Butyrospermum parkii (shea butter).


Common (Misused) Label Terms

Organic - In order for a product to be certified organic, it must meet stringent guidelines regarding the way in which ingredients are grown. This includes plants that are grown and harvested without the use of pesticies and other synthetic chemicals. Using the term "organic" on a label can mean that the product contains some organic ingredients.

Natural - This is a term that means very little. Strategic marketing campaigns have led consumers to believe that natural is synonymous with "healthy" or "wholesome." There are no government regulations tied to this term, so it can essentially mean anything that comes from the earth, even petroleum-based ingredients and animal products.

HypoallergenicManufacturers want you to believe that this means a product will not irritate sensitive skin or cause allergic reactions. In truth, this term means nothing. All substances can be allergenic or irritating, depending on the skin type. What is truly important is knowing the ingredients that YOU are sensitive to.

Fragrance-Free - This term actually means that the chemicals the company has put into the product were not intended to be used as a fragrance. Many chemicals have a fragrance function as well as other functions. Remember that trickly littler term "Fragrance" I mentioned earlier? The only way to really tell if a products is free from fragrance is to smell it first.


This is a short list, but I hope you, dear reader, find it helpful. Here is a printable version of my list of ingredients to avoid. Print it out and keep in on hand for your next shopping trip. 


Isabel Lara

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