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How to read the labels of cosmetics products

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Hello! How are you? Today I bring you a new post for the Did you know… category. I want to talk about something that concerns many of us: understanding the ingredients of cosmetic products. Often, when we go to buy a product, we look at the ingredients on its label. Sometimes we look for an ingredient that we know and, in many others, we find a series of incomprehensible chemicals. So today I want to help you better understand the labels so that you do not have problems with them and you know what you apply.

In this post I will deal with some questions that are a bit complicated to understand, but I will try to be as clear as possible so you do not get lost between ingredients and codes. Among the topics that I will discuss are:

  1. Amount of ingredients: less is more.
  2. Types of ingredients: active ingredients, excipients and additives.
  3. What is the INCI?
  4. Ingredients to avoid in cosmetic products.
  5. Why skincare products do not need perfumes.
  6. The importance of the conservation date.




This is a golden rule that you must not forget. In general, in cosmetics there is a certain tendency to incorporate an excessive amount of ingredients to the products in order to provide textures, aromas, colors and other unnecessary elements that are not essential. It is true that the proportion of these chemicals is usually very low, but in this case what I want to deal with is not the harmful amount of them, but the unnecessary of their presence. After all, its use makes us apply on our skin a series of compounds that we do not really need and that end up absorbed in our organism.

Currently there is a great trend towards minimalism in cosmetics. The fundamental idea behind this is to create products with a higher concentration of quality active ingredients that give us effective results and a smaller proportion of the ingredients that are really accessory. Thus, we get a more useful and higher quality cosmetics. However, we must bear in mind that this can lead to products with a shorter life or with less attractive scents and textures.

In my case, I do not have a particularly sensitive skin, perhaps the area that suffers most is my neck (especially after shaving). However, I have noticed among my friends and relatives with sensitive skin that they prefer to use products with a smaller amount of ingredients. The reason why the most sensitive skins opt for minimalism is quite simple: using fewer ingredients is less likely to cause reactions or, in case there is an ingredient that irritates the skin, it is easier to isolate it and determine which is.

Finally, the development of cosmetics with fewer ingredients also allows them to be more natural. When manufacturing products that are practically all active ingredients, it can be achieved that they are of natural origin, a trend with many followers. In relation to this aspect I want to mention something quite relevant: today there is no regulation that states what in cosmetics is understood as natural, organic or ecological. Therefore, do not trust the products that use these adjectives in their labels and advertising. To know if a cosmetic product is really natural, organic or ecological you will have to inform yourself better, looking for the philosophy of the brand and its values. With a bit of luck in a short time I will be able to update this post collecting what we must understand by natural, organic and ecological, until then you will have to investigate on your own. In any case, below I will talk about the different types of ingredients and some tricks that can help you understand which are of mineral or vegetable origin.




At the time of reading the labels of cosmetics it is necessary to understand that all the products use three basic types of ingredients in their composition: active principles, excipients and additives. I will try to explain to you in the simplest way possible what each of them is so that you never have doubts and can locate them more easily every time you take a cosmetic product.



The excipients are the component that provides texture to the product. Depending on the excipients that a product incorporates, it may be a cream, a gel, an emulsion, a foam, etc. Keep in mind that all products incorporate some type of excipient to have a specific texture. This does not imply that the excipients are harmful, at all. The most common excipient is water (since it is cheap and harmless), although in the labels of cosmetic products we can usually find others such as glycerin, alcohol, acetone or silicones, used in those cases in which the active ingredients (of which I will talk later) are not soluble in water.



Additives are components that are incorporated into skincare products to achieve a better preservation or a more pleasant appearance. They are in charge of giving the products their scent and color, among other aspects. They are responsible for the products being soft, rough, gelatinous, sticky, light, etc. Naturally, the additives can be harmless or they can be harmful. As I mentioned before, there is currently a great trend in cosmetics to minimize the ingredients that are incorporated into products, which is causing less and less additives to be used in favor of products with a higher concentration of active ingredients. In general, those who have the most sensitive skin usually appreciate the presence of fewer additives, since they are usually the most harmful ingredients and the ones that cause more irritations and problems. Some of the most common additives that we can find are BHT and BHA (which prevent the oxidation of the product), Phenoxyethanol and Methylparaben (to avoid the proliferation of bacteria, although this second is preferable to avoid it due to its tendency to irritate), lactic acid (for regulate the pH), limonene (to aromatize), etc.


Active principles:

The active ingredients are the most important component of any skincare product. To understand us, they are the ingredients that give it its real effectiveness and that make the product give real results. Of course, there are plenty of active ingredients and each one will give you different results depending on their nature. I am going to talk very briefly about some of the most common active principles, but later I will publish several posts talking at length about these and other products:

  • Tea tree oil: has soothing, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it a perfect ally when we have outbreaks of acne.
  • Hyaluronic acid: helps to keep the hydration of the skin very effectively
  • Lactic acid: helps preserve a uniform skin tone. It increases sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, so it must be used with caution.
  • Aloe vera: has important moisturizing and soothing properties.
  • Caffeine: has antioxidant and decongestant properties (which makes it excellent in the contours of eyes).
  • Calamine: helps relieve skin irritation.
  • Kaolin (white clay): helps absorb excess oil from the skin and improves blood circulation.
  • Activated carbon: cleans the skin in depth, removing excess oil without dehydrating.
  • Coenzyme Q10: is a powerful antioxidant that also helps prevent the signs of aging and reduce wrinkles.
  • Turmeric: helps reduce oil levels and correct scars on the skin.
  • Squalene: it allows to keep the skin hydrated and soft, also improving the absorption of the rest of active principles.
  • Shea butter: helps keep the skin protected and hydrated.
  • Peptides: they help in the regeneration of the skin by increasing the amount of collagen. Its amount decreases with over years, reason why its application through serums, boosters and creams can be very practical.
  • Retinol: is the product with the highest number of studies that support its anti-aging properties, helping to maintain a balanced tone and reduce the visibility of wrinkles. Those who have sensitive skin should use it with care, since at the beginning it can irritate the skin.
  • Rosehip: helps keep skin hydrated and facilitates healing.
  • Green tea: its antioxidant properties minimize the visibility of the signs of aging and helps to keep the skin free of acne.
  • Vitamin C: has antioxidant properties to keep the skin firm, smooth and with a uniform tone and without spots.
  • Vitamin E: is an antioxidant that helps maintain a balanced skin tone, facilitate healing and minimize acne.
  • Zinc: helps control oil levels and facilitates healing.




If you have ever stopped to investigate the subject that I am talking about today, it is very likely that you have run into this acronym. INCI stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. It is a set of rules established in the United States in the early 1970s by the CTFA (Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association) to clearly regulate the way to denominate the different ingredients that those products incorporate. To date, this list has become an international standard with more than 16,000 registered ingredients. Reading the cosmetics labels is much easier thanks to the INCI.

The INCI rules are many, but some of the ones that interest us the most are the following:

  • The order in which the ingredients are included depends on their concentration, it will be decreasing. There is a greater amount of the ingredients that appear first and less of the ingredients that appear in lesser place. The ingredients of which there is a concentration lower than 1% can be mentioned without a specific order.
  • The names of the ingredients are included in Latin, but they can be written in two languages ​​(that is why in many occasions we find examples like: Aqua / Water).
  • The direct derivatives of plants use nomenclature of the Linnaeus system (for example, Pyrus Malus is apple).
  • The manufacturer may request confidentiality for the exclusion of several ingredients from said list. This point seems to me quite controversial, since it can cause the publication of the list to be useless.
  • The dyes may appear at the end of the list, without a specific order by means of the IC Code (for example, Blue No.1 would be CI42090).

Here you can see a list with all the ingredients whose use is authorized in cosmetic products, although you can arm yourself with patience because you have a lot of reading there.




This is a very complicated subject, there is a lot of information available about it, so much so that sometimes it is difficult to separate the objective from the rumors and what does not have an authentic empirical support behind. I do not want to be dramatic, so I will limit myself to mentioning some ingredients – and the use that is given to them in cosmetics – that we can usually find and that can be harmful. With this I do not mean that they are directly toxic or harmful, only that they can be negative and that, as far as possible, it is convenient to avoid:

  • Aluminum: used as a soothing and firming.
  • BHA and BHT: it is used as an antioxidant for a better preservation of the products.
  • Butoxyethanol: used as a solvent.
  • DBP, DEHP, DEP: are used to make the aromas adhere to the skin.
  • Diazolidinyl Urea and Urea Imidazolidinyl: are used as preservatives.
  • EDTA: is used to give stability to the compounds.
  • Formaldehide: used as a fixative.
  • Fragrance / Perfume: are used to give a scent the products and may include various ingredients.
  • Hydroquinone: used to lighten the skin.
  • Mercury (Thimerosal and Merthiolate): used as a preservative and as an antiseptic.
  • Oxybenzone: used as a sunscreen.
  • Parabens (Isobutylparaben, Butylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben): they are used as preservatives for their antibacterial properties.
  • PEG, PPG: they are used as solvents.
  • Sodium Lauryl / Laureth Sulfate: used to make foam.
  • Toluene: used as a solvent.
  • Triclosan: has antibacterial properties.

As you can see, I have only focused on the use of these controversial ingredients in the cosmetics industry. I do not want to focus on the possible consequences of the use of each of them because it is highly variable and because I do not consider this to be the place or the time to enter into that subject. In any case, all those are ingredients that can lead to irritation and other health problems, so I, whenever I can, try to avoid using products that contain them (although sometimes inevitable).




In the first place, it is quite obvious: skincare products do not need perfumes because they only provide scents. Obviously, we will always prefer a product with an attractive aroma than another much more neutral. The function of perfumes in cosmetic products is to make them more striking to the public so that their use is much more pleasant to us and to hook us more.

As a general rule, the presence of perfumes should not be alarming or worrying, they are another ingredient and their purpose should not harm us. However, normally in the cosmetic industry there is a tendency to use artificial perfumes (such as Bromocinnamal, Citronellol, Cinnamal, Ethanol, Eugenol, Geraniol, Isoeugenol, Limonene, Linalool, etc.). The difference between the two is clear, artificial perfumes are much cheaper and easier to get but, on the other hand, have a greater tendency to cause irritation and discomfort. Therefore, it is not the presence of perfumes that might be harmful, but the presence of artificial perfumes.

These circumstances that I have mentioned are the main reason that those with sensitive skin perceive a greater irritation when using products that contain perfumes. As is logical, the proportion of perfumes does not have to be very high, after all with a very small amount it is possible to achieve the desired aroma to the product. In any case, a product in which the perfume appears in the final part of the list of ingredients will always be preferable (since, as I mentioned before, its proportion will be lower).

Finally, there is one aspect that I do not like at all in relation to perfumes and industry. Although in the lists of ingredients it is collected that a product contains perfume or fragrance, said perfume may be composed of different ingredients, in turn. The brands are not obliged to declare these ingredients, since it’s a commercial secret, so it is an area in which they are given excessive freedom to formulate the cosmetic products at will, without the need to adequately inform the buyers. Thus, under the apparently innocuous label of “perfume” some brands take advantage to camouflage some ingredients of which, in other cases, we would flee in terror.




In this post I talked about many aspects related to how we should read the labels of cosmetic products. I have focused especially on the ingredients, but there is another very important aspect that we should not leave out: the conservation date. Sometimes we forget that, as with food, beauty and skincare products have an expiration date. Sometimes, this is a specific date that is inscribed on the packaging. In other cases, an image of a container with an inscription next to it will appear: 6M, 12M, 24M, etc. (PAO symbol) This refers to the number of months the container can be open before the product begins to lose its properties.

Keep in mind that the expiration date is not the only indicator that establishes when we should stop using a skincare product. Any change in the texture, smell or color of the product may indicate that, due to some circumstance, it is in poor condition and that we should stop using it (or, otherwise, it may even be harmful to our skin). Sometimes, simply the sunlight can damage the most sensitive products, so we will always have to keep the cosmetic products in a cool, dry place where it does not receive direct sunlight.



In this post I have tried to tell you in detail about the most relevant aspects to know how to correctly read the labels of cosmetic products. Now you know a little more about how we should read them, the different types of ingredients and those that may be beneficial or harmful you will be prepared to take any container of those you have at home and understand their composition better.


If you have any questions about how to read the labels of cosmetic products or you want me to write a post about a specific topic do not hesitate to leave me a comment.


If you liked this post and want to continue learning tricks about beauty, cosmetics and skin care then you will like to read the following:


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