How to Read a Skincare Label

In my last post, I talked about one of the most important things you can do for your skin health. Reading the label is super important, but if you haven’t made a habit of it, it can also be confusing. Happily, I’m here with years of label deciphering under my belt, so I’ve put together five tips to help you understand what you’re reading. 

  1. Ingredients are listed by percentages in either volume or weight, and go down in descending order. Anything under 1% can be listed in any order.
  2. There is no standard definition of natural or organic, and no regulation of these terms. This means you can’t just rely on the words themselves to prove that a product is either natural or organic.
  3. Everything should be listed by either common or scientific name or both.
  4. The ingredients in fragrance are considered trade secrets. This means that ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ may contain 100 or more of around 3000 chemicals.
  5. The cosmetic industry is self-regulating. This means that no safety or allergen testing is required before a product is released. Just because it’s in there does not mean it is safe or non-toxic, or not a common allergen, carcinogen or skin sensitiser.

What? I hear you. Surely someone is checking on the safety of these things? Hmm, well, actually … Kind of, sort of. No. Actually No. That’s why you’re reading the label.

In Australia, chemicals (naturally-occurring and synthetic) have to be registered with the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme or NICNAS. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean much. NICNAS keeps a register of chemicals used in Australia but does not test their safety. There are about 40 000 chemicals on that register, of which about 3000 have been assessed for safety. This doesn’t mean they’ve been independently tested. It means that they’ve looked at all of the available data, (even if all of that comes from the company that produces the chemical) and drawn a conclusion about the best way it should be used. For some chemicals so little is known that their safety simply can’t be assessed

The above is all based on the situation in Australia but it’s relevant across borders. Some things change but cosmetics and their ingredients’ safety are pretty universally under-researched. A good start for trying to understand what is in your skincare is the Environmental Working Group which explains safety issues related to individual ingredients as well as showing where the research is at on individual ingredients.

Once upon a time, it wasn’t necessary to be an investigative journalist, science graduate and bio-chemical researcher to buy skincare. Once upon a time, people used whole natural ingredients, like botanical oils, butters and herbs. If you’d like some of that check out our shop, where we still recommend reading the label so you can see how simple genuinely nourishing skincare can be.