6 golden rules for deciphering skincare labels

The regulations behind cosmetics safety are more than a complex issue so this post, along with others that will follow, can only attempt to scratch the surface of the topic but I hope it/ they will offer a useful starting point for those of you who want to pay a bit more attention and want to start asking questions for yourselves.

As much as I have always paid attention to descriptions of products and the wonderous things those creams and potions offered to do to my skin with the ingredients that they contained, deciphering the actual ingredients lists never used to be something I did with ease. In fact, I simply didn’t do it. Instead I placed the trust in some higher power that must have gone through the necessary processes to declare the products sitting on the shelves of any high street drugstore, pharmacy, department store or even supermarket, to be safe for the public to use.

And whilst there are regulations in place – in the UK, the cosmetics industry is governed by the laws under the European Union Cosmetics Regulation (more info here) – there are still many organisations raising concerns about certain ingredients being permitted for use in every day cosmetics. The issue seems to lie in inconclusive evidence for many ingredients, however for me – everything boils down to a choice between man-made and natural ingredients, however this is not as simple as that. To add to this a whole new industry which is trying to cash in on ‘so-called’ natural and/or organic products, the challenge to navigate around this maze becomes even more daunting. Who should we trust and which information should we rely on?

So these days, before I buy a product, I study the ingredients lists very carefully and if I am unsure, I simply don’t buy the product – instead, I go home, do more research and then make an informed decision. Sounds like a lot of hassle? Yes, I suppose it does. Again – my view on this is that I’d rather be safe than sorry and having suffered from contact dermatitis for most of my life, plus having a child with the same condition, spending the time to become more informed is definitely worth the hassle.

So overall, when it comes to choosing skin care products, follow these 6 golden rules:

1. First of all, look out for potentially harmful ingredients

More on these can be found in my post here.

2. Ingredients are always listed in a proportional order with highest quantities at the top of the list and ending with the least concentrated ones.

So the first few positions have the highest percentage and the lower you go – yes, you guessed it, there is less and less of the ingredient. A good rule of thumb advised by others is to divide the ingredient list into thirds: the top third tends to contain 90-95% of the product, the middle third usually contains 5-8% and the bottom third – around 1-3%.

Another important thing to remember is that anything listed after ‘Parfum’ or ‘Fragrance’ (which, by the way, is a mixture of undisclosed ingredients (!) and can often include artificial fragrances which can be bad irritants for some of us, including those with skin conditions and babies/ children) is likely to be less than 1% and can appear in any order. So if a product boasts about its virtues because it contains, for instance, shea butter or aloe vera, but those two ingredients are listed towards the bottom of the list or after the fragrance, then their quantity is miniscule. There are, of course, some exceptions with regards to ingredients that can only be used in small doses. For instance, natural essential oils used in high dosages can be irritating and in some cases (e.g. lemongrass) concentrations as low as 0.1% can be irritating.

It is also worth noting that some active ingredients can be listed separately to the rest of the ingredients and if an ingredient is listed as a medicine, it will also be listed before all the other ingredients.

3. The shorter the list, the better.

It is simple as that – as long as it does not contain potentially harmful ingredients, that is.

4. Don’t fall for commonly used marketing tricks.

Just because a label claims the product has been ‘dermatologically tested’, it doesn’t mean it is approved by dermatologists or that it is safe to use – it simply means the dermatologist has done a patch test to check if the product is irritating to the skin. However, who knows whether it will be irritating to your skin so make sure you know if your skin may be sensitive to a particular ingredient. For me, this is formaldehyde, which I have been tested for, among other things, so I pay particular attention to formaldehyde releasers.

Similarly, be mindful of the ‘organic’ claims as many manufacturers wanting to cash in on the new ‘eco’ trend will use the term to mislead consumers. Whilst food and drink has to be independently audited to carry the word ‘organic’ in its title, this does not apply to the cosmetics industry. The only way if a product is truly organic is to look out for independent organic certifications on the labels. Having said that though, the organic standards are not equal. The Soil Association kitemark demands the cleanest ingredients (with 70% of non-water ingredients having to be organically grown, harvested and extracted). On the other hand, standards such as ECOCERT only require as little as 10% organic ingredients for them to carry their ‘organic’ kitemark.

Words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are often over-used to attract eco- and health- conscious consumers, so be mindful of marketing techniques and, instead, rely on labels and ingredient lists to guide your decisions.

Finally, whilst ‘fragrance free’ statements often are reassuring to hear, many manufacturers wanting to mask a natural odour will use synthetic fragrances which then makes the product ‘fragrance free’ so do check ingredient lists for artificial or synthetic fragrances.

5. Manufacturers tend to modify ingredients.

This happens very often so even if you have found a great product which claims to be free of ‘nasty’ ingredients, when you go to buy it next time – don’t make any assumption and reassure yourself by inspecting the list again.

Also, don’t rely on ingredient lists found against a product on shopping sites as they may not be recent lists (especially if ingredients have been modified). I have found that many lists of ingredients found online don’t match with those on the actual labels, or worse – different websites state different ingredients, so it is worthwhile checking those for yourself before you commit to buy a product. Or at least checking them against the official websites for the products you’re buying.

6. More expensive doesn’t mean better quality.

This is something that really bothers me about the skin care industry as the price of a product doesn’t necessarily indicate better quality and having done some research on my own products, I have seen that many of them can still be laden with man-made or even potentially harmful ingredients.

I’d be really interested to hear your views and experiences on this complex issue so please leave a comment.