Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Quick Quides: How to read an ingredients label


The first thing I do when I pick up a product is look at the label. Ingredients are listed in order from the highest concentrate until you hit the ingredients at a less than 1% level. The problem is that you have no way of knowing where that magic 1% level is. More of that later.
SO: I by no means know every ingredient or what it does, but there are a few key things that I personally look out for - namely:
  • mineral oil - listed as petrolatum, paraffinum liquidum or good old 'mineral oil' - I'm not a fan, if you are, crack on, but I see it as a red flag in 99% of situations.
  • palm oil - Whether the brand says it's 'sustainable' or not, there are too many problems with palm oil for me at the moment. I don't completely rule out using a product that contains it in small quantities, but I do try and politely ask the brand questions before I post about it re: their source and if they plan to replace it with an alternative. I know I'm in a fortunate position to be able to do that, but for you - if you haven't already, you may want to look into it, do your own research, make your own thoughts. 
  • alcohol - this is not cut and dry, if alcohol is the main ingredient or in the top three, I look carefully at the other ingredients. I'm talking straight alcohol, not all of the variants. An example would be Clinique Clarifying Lotion 4: Water, Alcohol Denat., Salicylic Acid, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel), Butylene Glycol, Glycerin, Trehelose, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sodium Hydroxide, Disodium EDTA-Copper, BHT, Phenoxyethanol, Benzophenone-4, Green 5 - some nice ingredients, but too much alcohol.
  • phenoxyethanol - this I use as a guide for %s. Phenoxyethanol, along with parabens, is not allowed to be in formulas at an amount higher than 1%. So you know that anything listed after either of those, is less than 1%. So..... if a brand is harping on and on about their massively 'active' ingredients (see previous post), and they all come after phenoxyethanol or parabens, they may not be that 'active'. There will always be exceptions, such as retinols, which are frequently at a strength of 0.3 or 0.5% - but in general, peptides, vitamins and the majority of other actives, you would mostly want them higher than 1%. Mostly. Not always - like I said, it's not an exact science.
Obviously, parabens and phenoxyethanol are not in all products - but where you do see them, it would be preferable to keep the bulk of the other ingredients listed prior to them - as in the example below:

Zelens Brightening Serum: Aqua (Water), Glycerin, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Squalane, Cyclopentasiloxane, Sodium Hyaluronate, Superoxide Dismutase, Thioctic Acid, Ubiquinone, Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate, Bisabolol, Perilla Frutescens Leaf Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Centella Asiatica Extract, Ginkgo Biloba Leaf Extract, Pinus Strobus Bark Extract, Echinacea Angustifolia Leaf Extract, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Dimethylmethoxy Chromanol, Hydrolyzed Sesame Protein PG-Propyl Methylsilanediol, Tripeptide-1, Lactic Acid, Polyacrylamide, Phenoxyethanol, Dimethicone, Acrylates Copolymer, C13-14 Isoparaffin, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Laureth-7, Ethylhexylglycerin, Polysilicone-11, VP/Polycarbamyl Polyglycol Ester, Butylene Glycol, Caprylyl Glycol, Xanthan Gum, Parfum (Fragrance), Linalool

The Zelens serum is front-heavy. The serum below however, is not, it's back-heavy:

Kate Somerville Mega-C Dual Radiance Serum - the Omega formula: Water, Neopentyl Glycol Diethylhexanoate, Propanediol, Methyl Glucose Sesquistearate, Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Diisopropyl Dimer Dilinoleate, PEG-20 Methyl Glucose Sesquistearate, Fragrance (Parfum), HDI/Trimethylol Hexyllactone Crosspolymer, Polymethylsilsesquioxane, Phenoxyethanol, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Borago Officinalis Seed Oil, Tocopherol, Elaeis Guineensis (Palm) Oil, Xanthan Gum, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Linoleic Acid, Linolenic Acid, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Calcium Pantothenate, Niacinamide, Disodium EDTA, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hippophae Rhamnoides Oil, Lecithin, Maltodextrin, Pyridoxine HCl, Silica, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Starch Octenyl Succinate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Tocotrienols, Adenosine, Sea Whip Extract, Citric Acid, Sodium Hydroxide

A lot of the good stuff is listed after Pheno - and fragrance is listed higher than it. (I do like this serum though - proving there are no definites.)
  • Fragrance - personally, I'm ok with fragrance in general but I know some of you are not, so in your case, keep an eye on how high it is in the inci list, and bear in mind that fragrance can contain hundreds of ingredients - and all be listed as 'fragrance'. If essential oils are your concern, they will be listed individually and easy to spot.
That's it for an overview of what I look for at a glance. Bear in mind, this list is EU and UK relevant. The USA is another ballgame and an entirely different minefield altogether. The FDA are nowhere near as stringent as the EU with ingredients and %s. 
If you have any questions leave me a comment and I will answer what I can and refer you to relevant people/authorities if I'm unsure.





37 comments:

  1. Very informative post as always Caroline. I'm not sure if this is true but I hears with American brands they have to list ingredients that are listed in extraction process too, not just ingredients added to the product directly.
    An example, I use a toner, the first ingredient is witch Hazel water and the second is alcohol denat. I was told the alcohol was used in extraction process of witch Hazel. The fact I can use the toner directly after shaving and there is no sign of a sting (in fact it's very soothing) I have been inclined to believe them.
    Do you know anything about this? I know you deal with brands from all over so might know.
    The Clinique product though, having used that and because the alcohol is listed before witch Hazel I have no doubt they've poured a distillery load in!!

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    1. False. It also makes no sense to list something that is not in the formula. It would be like listing lye as an ingredient in a soap, although it has all reacted away. Witch hazel extract is mostly ethanol and in that case both ingredients are present and have to be listed. Alcohol is not a big irritant; rather, it is drying.

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  2. Hi Caroline. Am I right in thinking that Alpha H Liquid Gold is an example of a product high in alcohol content, the potentially drying effect of which is offset by the also high glycerin content? I do worry about the effect of using so much alcohol on my skin every other day.

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  3. This is so helpful, thanks Caroline. I'm a risk analyst by trade, so I research, research, research - pretty much everything and anything I buy or do! So I do try to check the labels and work out what I *think* is good or not, but it can still be so difficult to navigate it all. The rule of thumb regarding Phenoxyethanol is very good to know and I'll definitely take that on board :)

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  4. Isn't C13-14 Isoparaffin also a mineral oil? (Why is it in the Zelens serum?) *hides*

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    Replies
    1. It is used as an emollient & a gelling agent.

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    2. I guess as it's less than 1% it doesn't matter anyway! Thank you for this post!

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  5. There are other ingredients aside from preservatives that are used at 1% or below. Let's not forget that the amount of water in a lotion-type liquid is around 80%. There is only 20% left for the rest of the stuff, a lot of which will be emollients, and a few percent will be emulsifiers or polymers to keep everything mixed together.

    In the Zelens serum I'd guess that everything after, and including, sodium hyaluronate or even cyclopentasiloxane is 1%. Sodium hyaluronate is usually used at 1% or below.

    In the Kate Somerville serum, the fragrance is the highest possible 1% line but it could be diisopropyl dimer dilinoleate.

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    1. Hi Caroline, hi Sara Sara,
      I turn to you both because you seem knowledgable on the topic, and may be able to help me understand the following: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that “ingredients present at a concentration not exceeding 1% may be listed in any order after the listing of the ingredients present at more than 1% in descending order of predominance” for cosmetics. But then would this not mean that taking preservatives or sodium hyaluronate as 1% mark is largely useless, because other ingredients at 1% could just as well stand before as well as after them?
      And Sara Sara, does "the fragrance is the highest possible 1% line" mean that fragrance is only allowed at concentrations of 1% or lower as well?

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  6. There are other ingredients aside from preservatives that are used at 1% or below. Let's not forget that the amount of water in a lotion-type formula is around 80%. Less for formulas with more oil. There is only 20% left for the rest of the stuff, a lot of which will be emollients, and a few percent will be emulsifiers or polymers (in gels) to keep everything mixed together.

    There are also going to be acidity regulators and texture improvement ingredients below the 1% line as well. No one is going to buy a product with great ingredients that feels weird.

    In the Zelens serum I'd guess that everything after, and including, sodium hyaluronate or even cyclopentasiloxane is 1%. Sodium hyaluronate is usually used at 1% or below.

    In the Kate Somerville serum, the fragrance is the highest possible 1% line but it could be diisopropyl dimer dilinoleate.

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  7. Thanks very much for trying to demystify this for your readers, I for one am very grateful! I recently had a bad reaction to a new cleanser; hopefully this will help in trying to find the offending ingredient(s) so I can avoid them in the future and hopefully save a bit of money on skincare that I can't use

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  8. I always thought that fragrance shouldn't be more than 1% as well? Don't even remember why...

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  9. Hi Caroline, such an informative post! Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge :)

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  10. Great article and very helpful thanks Caroline. That's always the first thing I look at too and is one of the things I've advised my daughter to come and read up about on your blog. Learn your ingredients and what suits which type of skin and then you can work out what skincare to go for/try.

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  11. Great post! I've been reading your blog for years now and and these kind of post are really helpful for finding other great products that haven't been reviewed here. Crossing my fingers for more!

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  12. This is such a great post. Thankyou!

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  13. Hi Caroline,
    My skin flares up in spots really easily - especially on the chin and forehead - and my mum thinks that I'm using too many products which is aggravating the spots.
    I'm 19 and only use a simple 3 step routine (body shop seeweed cleanser, first aid beauty pads, kiehls oil free lotion)
    Should I have a skincare detox and only use a flannel and warm water for a couple of days? Will this do any harm/good??

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  14. What about methilizolazaline or metholethylisothiazolinone used in low end skincare in the uk? Banned in Canada though?

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    Replies
    1. From what I've read, they are considered safe and effective for rinse-off products but evidence regarding skin sensitisation is inconclusive for leave-on products. They're being banned in the EU from April onwards next year.

      Colin has a good science-based post on them: http://colinsbeautypages.co.uk/methylchloroisothiazolinone-methylisothiazolinone-kathon-cg/

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  15. Thank you for the education! I want to become more mindful of ingredients especially since my skin is sensitive.

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  16. Such a clear and helpful post! I am also wondering about the isoparaffin stuff (whether it shall be avoided as well), and what do you think about mineral oil in masks and cleansers? They don't stay on your face long, but some of them work really well.

    http://againstandforward.blogspot.com

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    1. I think Caroline has said before that she does like a paraffin mask during a facial from time to time.
      Mineral oil in 2nd cleansers are a no-no, I believe... especially if you're paying for a premium product.

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    2. Thank you so much! I must have missed it!

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  17. That Phenoxyethanol tip is great, I never would have thought of that.

    Linda, Libra, Loca: Beauty, Baby and Backpacking

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  18. Excellent Caroline! Informative and easy to understand :). Thank you xxx

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  19. Thanks for this and everything else! And for doing more for my skin than my dermatologist! Would love to hear your thoughts on allergens such as Benzophenone. Thanks again

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    1. Not Caroline but allergens are not universal. Peanuts are an allergen only to those who are allergic to them. If you are allergic to something, don't use it, but if you are not, you can keep using it. If you are allergic to a sunscreen ingredient, you're likely to be able find one that does not contain it.

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  20. Absolutely and superbly useful this info you have given Caroline

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  21. I haven’t had much luck finding recommendations for palm oil-free skincare products, and I do find the names rather confusing. Isn’t Laureth-7 (in the Zelens product) another name for palm oil? The Kate Somerville product mentions palm oil too. And I’m suspicious about the product in the photograph - what’s peg-8 laurate? That sounds a bit palm oil-like. Any recommenations would be very welcome - thank you!

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  22. Yes, Palm oil free recommendations would be great! After seeing Wild orangutans but hearing the chainsaws in the background I try to avoid Palm oil where I can. I love Emma Hardie but stopped using it when I saw Palm oil in their inci list, do you know if it is sustainable ?

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  23. I have dehydrated, combination skin & started introducing acids into my skincare regime 2 weeks back. Can I use this product?

    Ingredient:
    Purified Water, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Cetyl. Ethylhexanoate, Niacinamide, Methylpropanoate, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, Triethylhexanoin, Dimethicone, Pheonoxyethanol, Limnanthes Alba Seed oil, Polyquaternium-51, Polysorbate 60, Triethanolamine, Chlorphenesin, Phospholipids, Acrylates Copolymer, Carbomer, Xanthan Gum, Ethylhexylglycerin, Essential Oils of Lavender, Marjoram, Clary Sage, Rosemary, Ho Wood, Eucalptus, Thyme, Sodium Hyaluronate, Laureth-3, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Acetyl Dipeptide-1 Cetyl Ester, Yeast Extract, Polysorbate 20, Palmitoyl Tripeptide-5, Verbena Officinails Extract, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Palmitoyl Dipeptide-10, Palmitoyl Hexapeptide-12, Palmitoyl Penpeptide-4, Palmitoyl Tripeptide-1,Soy Amino Acids, Acetyl Tetrapeptide-9, Tetradecyl Aminobutyroylvalylaminobutyric Urea Trifluoroacetate, Dextran, Palmitoyl Dipeptide-5, Diaminobutyroyl Hydroxythreonine, Trifluoroacetyl Tripeptide-2, Magnesium Chloride.

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  24. This kind of article are very helpful! tks

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  25. I thought that all ingredients of 1% and below could be listed in any order the company like. Thus, if phenoxyethanol is listed last in a product there could still be several ingredients listed in front of it even if it is actually less of them in the product.
    Is this correct?
    Another question I have is whether products from e.g. the state need another version of their ingredient list to be sold within the EU?
    Thank you very much for an informative post!

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  26. Very informative. ..thanks to you, Caroline

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  27. Hi, I actually work for an ingredients distributor and am interested in your point about palm. I totally agree with you that a more transparent system of sustainable palm should be available to consumers but personally feel emphasis needs to be on this not palm alternatives. In terms of yield palm is far more effective than possible alternatives, both in skincare and particularly the food market, meaning complete replacement is an unrealistic solution while sustainable farming is (slowly and eventually) not. Shopping for palm replacements is not going to help improve the situation long term, check www.rspo.org for more info or http://www.thefactsabout.co.uk/whats-in-my-cosmetic/content/40#p ; The Facts About is a great website in general. Thanks :)

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  28. Hi Caroline, why are you not a fan of mineral oil? I was surprised to learn that the Shu Uemura face cleansing oil that I'm using and has worked really well on me, is just that. For some reason I thought that face oils tend to be natural, but there you go I'm so wrong.

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  29. I just saved that 'Pheno' in my phone. Such a great tip for everyone (me) who reads a little of the ingredients, but doesn't always know what to pay attention to. Thank you!

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