As tempting as trendy packaging and clever buzzwords are, they don’t make a product safe.

The first thing to catch my eye when browsing beauty counters is aesthetic labeling. Hello, ultra-minimal, rose gold-embossed label, I want you!

As tempting as trendy packaging and clever buzzwords are, they don’t make a product safe.

Beauty products aren’t exactly transparent. Want a dash of formaldehyde with your sudsy shea body wash? No thanks.

If you’re like me, you’ve learned that it takes more than a catchy slogan and pop of pastel to warrant a purchase. However, reading long, bulky words that sound like something from an ’80s sci-fi lab is exhausting, right?

Ready to cut through the toxins and make educated choices with a quick skim? Keep reading as I wade through the junk to find the gems.

It’s often reported that beauty products aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but this isn’t entirely true. There are two congressional laws the FDA uses to regulate cosmetic labeling:

Cosmetic labeling laws

  • Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act: This law defines the provisions, regulations, and intended use of an ingredient. However, its intention for label regulation is exclusive to prohibiting “adulterated or misbranded” ingredients, unsafe color additives, or poisonous substances. Basically, this means cosmetic companies aren’t allowed to knowingly poison their consumers.
  • Fair Packaging and Labeling Act: This law’s primary function enables the FDA to oversee that all labeling equips consumers with accurate ingredient information.
Healthline

However, the FDA does leave it up to individual companies to test out and ensure that their products are safe.

It also doesn’t require them to share any of that information with the FDA, and it allows brands and manufacturers to use pretty much any ingredient in products that they want as long as “the ingredient and the finished cosmetic are safe under labeled or customary conditions of use.”

It’s the last part that causes some concern.

Currently, the United States only prohibits 11 ingredients suspected of causing any harm from being used in cosmetics. In contrast, the European Union has banned more than 2,400 potentially harmful ingredients from use in cosmetics.

This means that when it comes to what’s in your beauty and skin care products, including nail polish, lipstick, perfume, moisturizers, and shampoo, manufacturers in the United States have a lot of leeway.

They can include ingredients that have been linked to potentially unpleasant and alarming health implications in recent research.

For example, have you ever wondered why your face lotion lasts so long? You can thank (or blame) parabens for that.

Manufacturers often add them to beauty and skin care products as a preservative. But recent research suggests they may be able to enter your skin and cause hormonal disruption by weakening your body’s production of estrogen.

My first step toward becoming a savvier beauty shopper was learning about the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) list.

If you’re unfamiliar with the INCI list, you’re not alone. I personally always felt intimidated by this laundry list of chemicals, but eventually learned how important it truly is.

The INCI list is a labeling system created by a U.S.-based trade group known as the Personal Care Products Council. It’s recognized in many countries, including the United States, China, and the European Union. Companies aren’t required by law to use the INCI system on their products, but many do.

The INCI list includes more than 16,000 ingredients, making it a great resource for those looking to find more information about what’s in their products.

Located on the back of a beauty product, the INCI list shows the ingredients in descending order by concentration. At first glance, it’s a long list of difficult words ending with -zyls and -ols.

Many of these unfamiliar terms are safe, like tocopherol (vitamin E), a natural preservative. Others are frequent offenders that you’ll encounter in multiple products (more on that below).

Active vs. inactive ingredients

Some products only list active ingredients that are present in small amounts. Manufacturers prioritize these ingredients at the top of the list because they sound organic or natural, and choose to leave out the bulk of the ingredients.

Most INCI lists label ingredients in descending order by concentration. This tells the consumer what ingredients are used most and least in a given product.

However, over-the-counter products like sunscreens and certain skin creams will go the active and inactive ingredients route.

Labeling by active or inactive ingredients doesn’t require the manufacturer to list ingredients by concentration. Instead, the ingredients are listed alphabetically.

Active ingredients are approved by the FDA for a specific function. For example, benzoyl peroxide is an active ingredient for treating acne.

Inactive ingredients are sort of like the supporting cast — they’re present to support the active ingredient.

Listing alphabetically and by active ingredients doesn’t actually tell the consumer how much of each ingredient is in the product. It only tells the consumer which ingredients are supposed to produce a desired outcome and which ones are there for support.

Ultimately, this leads to cloudy judgment when purchasing products, especially for those of us with sensitive skin. Why?

Because as a consumer, I need to know how much of each ingredient is in my product in order to determine if that ingredient is going to irritate my skin.

It also helps me figure out when an ingredient is touted on the front of a label for advertising purposes, but is included at such a small quantity that I can’t actually benefit from it.

FDA-recognized allergens

Consider the potential red-flag ingredients below, which the FDA recognizes as allergens:

  • Formaldehyde, paraformaldehyde, methylene glycol (another form of formaldehyde): These can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
  • Methylisothiazolinone (MIT): This may cause an itchy, red skin rash.
  • P-phenylenediamine (PPD): A 2010 study linked this one to eye irritation and dermatitis, among other allergic reactions.
  • Coal tar: This is frequently used in shampoos and perfumes and may cause rashes, itching, and skin redness and irritation.
  • Heavy metals (for example, lead, mercury, cadmium, nickel): In 2013, a small study tested a sample of 32 lipsticks and lip glosses (8 lipsticks, 24 lip glosses) and found that 24 of the 32 contained traces of lead, cadmium, chromium, and manganese. In 2016, an FDA study tested more than 685 products and found that 99 percent fell within recommended limits for lead. However, many safety advocates believe there’s no such thing as a safe amount of lead.
  • Fragrance: This is an umbrella term used to denote thousands of ingredients, including perfume, aroma, or natural scents. In a 2017 Australian study of 1,098 participants, 33 percent of consumers reported health issues ranging from migraine to asthma attacks after exposure to products containing fragrance.
Healthline

Additionally, further research raises the red flag on the following ingredients:

How can the information be accurate when we don’t know the quantities of potentially toxic ingredients present?

While laws serve to protect us from buying products with harmful toxins, the lines blur when trying to decipher the concentration of active and inactive ingredients.

If I’m ever unsure as to precisely what all the ingredients are in a product, or if I see ingredients listed alphabetically, I’ll put the product back on the shelf and keep browsing.

Natural and organic labeling

It’s important to understand what it means when a product claims to be natural or organic.

According to the FDA, “natural” means “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to” a product. But this is only true in the case of food.

The FDA doesn’t have regulations around the use of the term “natural” or the term “organic” for cosmetics.

Another example is the USDA definition of organic. Something is organic when it’s “produced without: antibiotics; growth hormones; most conventional pesticides; petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

This definition can apply to any agricultural ingredients (read: plant or animal products) contained in cosmetics, but not to the cosmetic product itself.

This means that when cosmetics are labeled with the terms “natural” and “organic,” there’s no governing body to confirm that claim is true.

Green labeling

Then comes the issue of “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing is a form of marketing strategy used to imply that a product is environmentally friendly through packaging, labeling, or jargon.

In practice, there are at least 457 certified eco or green labels used around the world, as documented by the worldwide directory Ecolabel Index, which tracks labels through independently-verified submissions and web scraping.

With so many labels out there, it’s difficult to keep track of which ones are really backed by an authentic certification process and which are used to greenwash.

In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to environmental certification seal providers and products using those seals to alert them that use of those seals may be considered misleading.

They noted that appropriate use of seals involves more than the seal itself: It should be accompanied by the attributes that make that product eligible to be certified.

Interestingly, research shows that simply using the color green on packaging affects consumer’s opinions of a product.

With just a little bit of research and critical thinking, you can make informed choices about which products you choose to buy and not be swayed by what the package does or doesn’t tell you.

Once you learn which legitimate symbols to look for, shopping gets just a little bit easier.

As cute as that little rabbit on the back of the product is, it could be a manufacturer decoy bunny instead of a certified cruelty-free seal.

Manufacturers love to decorate products with pretty symbols, but only a select few are officially certified by an organization like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or Soil Association.

Sure, “formulated with organic ingredients” looks appealing, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, whereas “USDA organic” is legitimate. Let’s compare.

Official symbols

  • Expiration date. This can appear as a “best before” date, a “period after opening” symbol, or an hourglass with the shelf life in months.
  • Recyclable. A green or black circle of arrows means the packaging is recyclable.
  • Cruelty-free. Look for PETA’s pink bunny ears or the Cruelty Free International leaping bunny to verify the product hasn’t been tested on animals.
  • Vegan. An official seal from Vegan.org means the product is 100 percent vegan.
  • USDA organic. Not natural, not organic, but 100 percent certified USDA organic.
  • Fair trade certified. A symbol certifying that the manufacturing and trading processes protect workers and land.

Manufacturer symbols

Brands add manufacturer symbols to persuade buyers to purchase their product.

A product may have a symbol on the packaging to make it look good, but it isn’t proof that the manufacturer is following certain practices or using particular ingredients.

The key difference between official certification and manufacturer symbols is third-party verification.

Only official symbols show that a product has been tested by an outside organization. Manufacturer symbols don’t. That makes it impossible to know how accurate they are.

Buyer beware of the manufacturer symbols below:

  • natural
  • not tested on animals
  • paraben-free
  • green
  • formulated with organic ingredients
  • made with natural ingredients
  • dermatologist recommended

When I first started reading beauty labels, I fell for green packaging and gimmicky marketing lingo. It wasn’t enough, and my skin wasn’t happy. At one point, I stopped wearing makeup and only used two to three products every day that I knew wouldn’t accost my skin.

I decided not to let the labels define my actions. No longer would scientific names intimidate me. I learned that reading beauty labels boils down to a simple system.

Over time, I gained confidence in my process and made informed purchases that aligned with my needs.

Here are some tips to help you do the same:

  • Stick with companies you trust. As more people learn to read labels and make conscious purchases, the list of reputable beauty brands expands. Some of my favorites are 100% Pure, True Botanicals, and Nourish Organic.
  • Keep a list of toxic ingredients in your phone for quick reference. You’ll start to recognize common toxins and allergens and learn what to avoid.
  • Download the Think Dirty app. With the app, you can check product quality at the store, because sometimes the quickest answer is a barcode scan away.
  • Find a system that works for you. Every one of us is unique and deserving of beauty products that are safe and make us feel beautiful.

These four steps have helped me break free of the beauty label bait and switch.

I value my skin care and beauty routine because it makes me feel good. Carving out a slice of my busy day devoted entirely to myself is necessary, and toxic ingredients don’t have to slow me down.


Christina Lyon is a SoCal-based wellness and lifestyle writer, blogger, and musician. She obsessively reads fiction, writes poetry and songs, and will one day polish her debut fiction novel. Until then, she’s exploring the coastal beaches and contemplating the meaning of life through words. Connect with her on Instagram.