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.