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5 Tips To Decode Your Ingredient Labels Like A Pro

[Illustration by Melissa Pan]
One of my biggest challenges in transitioning to a greener routine was learning to read and understand the ingredient labels on the products I use, but it really doesn't have to be rocket science. And if I can do it, anyone else can. Read on for 5 tips that will have you decoding the label like a pro.

1. Read from top to bottom

Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with what makes up the largest percentage of the product. If you’re avoiding an ingredient and it’s listed in the top half of the list, you’d be better off putting it back on the shelf. 

A product may also boast of a particular ingredient, but if it is listed at the end of the list, not very much of it is actually present. True story: I once saw a "Prickly Pear Lip Balm" that did not have a trace of prickly pear seed oil in its ingredient list. 

2. Understand your ingredients

I have written a blogpost about what ingredients you should avoid in your products, and it will take some effort to remember these but I promise it will get easier over time. If you are unsure about an ingredient, it doesn’t take long to google it.

Both the Think Dirty and Healthy Living (formerly EWG's Skin Deep) apps are useful for you to look up products when you are on the go. However, bear in mind that there are some flaws in the system as certain ingredients are immediately given a hazard score of 0 when there are no scientific data available, and it doesn’t take into account the percentage of the ingredients in the product. For example phenoxyethanol is sometimes used as a preservative and has a score of 4, but it is non-irritating and non-sensitizing at levels of 2.2% or lower and approved by both the EU and Japan up to 1% concentration.

3. Not all organic standards are equal

Look for the Soil Association or USDA Organic labels as these demand the cleanest ingredients. Products bearing the USDA Organic label must contain 95 percent or more organic ingredients, while products identified as "made with organic ingredients" must contain 70 percent or more organic ingredients.

Standards such as ECOCERT allow companies to use as little as 10% organic ingredients in products that bear their mark.

4. Check the expiry date

You may see a PAO symbol of an open cream jar with a number and an M (which stand for months) inside the symbol- this tells you how long the product is good for after opening it. Some brands may also indicate an expiration date on the product so you know when it’s time to toss it out.

Just like with food, these dates exists as rules of thumb, and if the products are properly closed and stored in ideal conditions, they may be acceptable after the date has passed. On the flipside, if they have been exposed to heat, sunlight or bacteria, the product may go rancid way before the date.

5. Beware of greenwashing

Unfortunately greenwashing tactics abound in the industry, and just because a product claims to be dermatologist-tested, allergy-tested, cruelty-free, fragrance-free, botanical and all-natural honestly doesn’t mean anything. Regulatory law does not define any of these terms, so any brand can use them as they please.

Kirsten Arnett’s Green Beauty Team has published a list of 22 offending beauty brands that blatantly mislead consumers through their marketing, and you may be surprised by who made it there.

Are you paying attention to the ingredient labels on your beauty products?

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