Mindful Shopping- How to Decode a Cosmetic Ingredient List

When There Is No Ingredient List On The Package, Move On

In the EU and US, companies must print the ingredient list on their packages. In the rare case that you don’t find the whole ingredient list on the package, get really suspicious about the authenticity of that product and forget it.

The Order Matters

Ingredients are listed on product labels in descending order with the highest quantities at the top of the list. If a product sells itself as extra hydrating, but the ingredients that can provide that hydration are found far, far at the end of the list, it is safe to say that the desired results will probably never come.

The 1% Rule

This descending order rule, however, does not completely eliminate confusion regarding the nature and quantity of ingredients in a product.

Ingredients that are present at a concentration below 1% can be listed in any order. This means that there is a 1% level somewhere on the label and after that a 0.1 concentration ingredient can preceed a 0.9 % one.

Sometimes brands do play with these rules and put fancier ingredients before others even if the product contains less of the former.

To make matters even more confusing, sometimes the 1% does not indicate a problem. For example retinols are used at levels below 1% and that’s OK. So, there is no exact science to guess to concentrations.

A good rule of thumb is to look at the first five or six ingredients, because most often they will be the ones responsible for the primary functional properties of the product.

Some other good indicators: the EU and Japan only allows Phenoxyethanol and parabens at less than 1%. Preservatives, pigments, fragrances are also rarely used above 1%.

Beware Of Angel Dusting

Angel dusting is the dubious practice of adding a very tiny amount of an active or very popular ingredient to a product, so it can be featured on the ingredient list.

Remember, ingredients must be listed by descending order, but the exact amount is not specified.

The company thus adds a teeny-tiny amount of the popular ingredient and then it may heavily feature it on the label or in advertising.

It’s a misleading practice, as what they technically do is legal: the ingredient is indeed included in the mix – just not in the amount necessary for it to produce any effects.

This is only assumed by the consumer. Some even go so far as to claim the ingredient is part of a “proprietary blend.” A blend that makes up 10 percent of the total product will be placed high on the list, even if the touted ingredient only exists in trace amounts within it.

Companies mostly do this for financial reasons, as the good active ingredients are usually expensive. So, what can we do about it? It’s difficult, but paying attention to the order helps. If the ingredient is near the bottom of the list, it’s suspicious. See this example.

By no means are you expected to know every ingredient or what it does, but there are a few key things that I personally look out for – namely:

mineral oil – listed as petrolatum, paraffinum liquidum or good old ‘mineral oil’ – I’m not a fan, if you are, crack on, but I see it as a red flag in 99% of situations.

palm oil – Whether the brand says it’s ‘sustainable’ or not, there are too many problems with palm oil for me at the moment. I don’t completely rule out using a product that contains it in small quantities.

alcohol – this is not cut and dry, if alcohol is the main ingredient or in the top three, I look carefully at the other ingredients. I’m talking straight alcohol, not all of the variants.

An example would be:

Clinique Clarifying Lotion 4:

Water, Alcohol Denat., Salicylic Acid, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel), Butylene Glycol, Glycerin, Trehelose, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sodium Hydroxide, Disodium EDTA-Copper, BHT, Phenoxyethanol, Benzophenone-4, Green 5 –

….way too much alcohol.

Phenoxyethanol(perfume stabilizer/anti-bacterial)

Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), Occupational hazards; Other MODERATE concerns:Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive); Other LOW concerns: Data gaps

Classified as toxic or harmful (only for products for use around the mouth; products for use on the lips)


Classified as expected to be toxic or harmful (Environment Canada Domestic Substance List)

MODERATE concerns:Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive); Other LOW concerns: Data gaps, Ecotoxicology

And other silicones (especially when they appear in the first 5-6 ingredients in a list.)

Silicones are cheap “fillers” that sit on top of the skin – creating a temporary “plump” effect. They impede natural skin function and cellular turnover, can congest the skin, and block other, more beneficial ingredients from being absorbed into the skin.

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