The Truth about Labels

An Introduction to “The Truth about Labels”

Let’s face it, ladies, when it comes to cosmetics there is TOO MUCH info on the labels. As overwhelming as all that text is, and tempting as it is to ignore the information and focus on the packaging and the {many times empty} promises of the product, Dr. Irene simplifies the process of understanding this important info before your next beauty purchase!

Dr. Irene explains how to easily identify which ingredients are in the product and why. Is the product you’re buying rich in quality ingredients, or full of junk? No one wants to pay for garbage, so do yourself a favor, and make sure that you know how to read cosmetics labels. Your face and your wallet will thank you.

Dr. Irene breaks it down for you so you can understand ingredients listed first are in the highest amounts, where active ingredients are listed, how to identify types of ingredients, fragrance and preservatives, and much much more.


The Truth about Labels

by Dr. Irene Reyzis



Have you ever been shopping for a new cosmetic or personal care product and been overwhelmed by the amount of information on the label? To most people it seems you need a PhD to be able to understand what ingredients are in products and why they are there. The label material and names of ingredients are so displaced from common language that it’s impossible for most people to tell if a product has good ingredients or if it is mainly composed of empty filler ingredients that don’t provide real benefit to the consumer.

Confusion over the ingredients isn’t surprising when product labels list dozens upon dozens of different ingredients with complicated chemical names. When the ingredient list goes on and on, taking up an entire side of the container or box, you may be inclined to think “are so many ingredients really necessary?” A lot of times they are not, yet it is common for companies to put in a lot of extras for various reasons. Extra ingredients may be used for creating a specific texture or simply making the formula seem more effective to consumers than it really is.

Yet all hope is not lost. There is a certain amount of familiarity a consumer can get with the language of labels, it only takes a little education. This article is intended to be a crash course on cosmetic labels that offers a wealth of insight on how to approach label information.



What product information should be displayed? 

The following information should be displayed on the packaging where the consumer is likely to see it under normal conditions of sale:

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  1. Product Identity
  2. Net Contents
  3. Directions for use/application
  4. Product Ingredients
  5. Warning and caution statements
  6. Manufacturer/Distributor information

Other information commonly displayed:

  1. “Period after opening” symbol, which indicates the number of months to use the product after opening it, provided the product is stored under normal conditions and not exposed to extreme temperatures. For example, “24M” means you should replace a product within 24 months after first opening it.
  2. Recycling symbol
  3. Origin of product (AKA “Made in USA”)

10 Symbol indicating to look at a product insert for additional information, like a leaflet, card or tag.

11 Batch numbers should be visible somewhere on the outside box or product container

All this information must be prominent, easy to read and easy to locate.



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  1. A) Order of Ingredients

For decoding the ingredient list, it is important to understand the order of ingredients on a label. The rule of the FDA (and most legal bodies worldwide) is that ingredients must be listed in descending order of predominance. In other words, those that make up the majority of the formula are listed first, and towards the end are those present in very small amounts. There are a few exceptions to the requirement of listing by predominance:

  1. Ingredients present at 1% or less may be listed in any order after ingredients present over 1%.

This is a really important rule to understand. The reason is that most cosmetics include a lot of ingredients at less than 1%. At some point in the middle of the list this group of ingredients starts and after that point ingredients can be listed in any order. The trick is identifying this point in the list; it can’t always be done with 100% certainty even for people who know the chemistry. However there are some ingredients to look for that are typically in the “less than 1%” category which can serve as landmarks. These include fragrance, preservatives, gums, carbomer, and some skin care actives such as vitamins.

  1. If the product is an OTC drug, the active ingredients should be listed before the cosmetic ingredients

This applies to acne products, dandruff shampoos, lip balm skin protectants, antiperspirants and hand sanitizers. The ingredient statement for one of these products reads as follows: “Active Ingredient: (name of drug ingredient and %). Other Ingredients: (cosmetic ingredients in descending order).”

  1. Color additives may be listed in any order at the very end of the list, after the listing of ingredients that are not color additives. 

It doesn’t matter if colorants are included at levels greater than 1% or not, all colorants in a cosmetic formula should be listed last.


Example of Ingredient Ordering – Lipstick

The following example shows a right and wrong way to order ingredients based on levels in a generic lipstick formula. You can see the correct way has Castor Oil, Lanolin, Beeswax, Candelilla Wax, Carnauba Wax and Ozokerite as the ingredient order, because their levels are 58, 8, 6.5, 5.5, 3 and 2%. The correct list also shows how colorants should be listed last and put in any order amongst themselves.

Incorrect Label Copy:  Correct Label Copy:
Castor Oil (58%) 

Beeswax (6.5) 

Candelilla Wax (5.5) 

Carnauba Wax (3) 

Lanolin (8) 

Ozokerite (2) 

Blendof:Propylene Glycol (and) BHA 

(and) Propyl Gallate (and) Citric Acid (1.3) 

Tocopheryl Acetate (0.2) 

Ascorbyl Palmitate (0.1) 

Vanillin (0.7) 

Titanium Dioxide (2) 

D&C Red No. 21 (2) 

D&C Red No. 6 Barium Lake (4) 

D&C Yellow No. 5 Aluminum Lake (5) 

Fragrance (0.5) 

Castor Oil 



Candelilla Wax 

Carnauba Wax 


Propylene Glycol 


Propyl Gallate 

Citric Acid 

Tocopheryl Acetate 

Ascorbyl Palmitate 



Titanium Dioxide 

D&C Red No. 21 

D&C Red No. 6 Barium Lake 

D&C Yellow No. 5 Aluminum Lake 


  1. B) Names of Ingredients

The cosmetic industry has a global naming system called the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients, or INCI. These ingredient names are recognized in Europe and most countries worldwide. In the US however the FDA requires ingredients to be listed by their common English names.

Common English names sometimes overlap with international names (like with glycerin), but this is not always the case. For example, the international system identifies water as “aqua” and fragrance as “parfum”. Many naturals go by their botanical names and each colorant is assigned a 5-digit color index (CI) number. The FDA is okay with using international names in addition to common names, sometimes with parentheses or by using a slash.

  1. C) Identifying Types of Ingredients

First few ingredients on the list are “main ingredients” and make up the bulk of the formula

Almost always the first 3-6 ingredients make up the majority of a formula, usually in the ballpark of 75-98%. It is common to see water as the first ingredient, and in this case it is likely to be more than 70% of the total formula. The rest of the main ingredients give the product its ability to fulfill its intended use. For example, in a shampoo the main ingredients usually include water and detergents (AKA surfactants). If you are looking at a lotion, the main ingredients are usually water, emollients and moisturizers.

Fragrance (Parfum)

Fragrance (or flavor in some lip products) is often found in the middle or toward the end of the list, depending on how much is in the formula. For the most part fragrance levels range from 0.1-2%, but some heavily scented products may include more. The individual chemicals in a fragrance may be identified as ingredients, but this is not usually the case and it is not required by the FDA.


A preservative is something used to protect the product from contamination with germs (bacteria, mold, fungi, etc.). It is common for a formula to include more than one preservative, and these don’t necessarily occur next to each other in the ingredient list. Total preservative are usually between 0.3-1.0%, so when there are multiple each preservative is almost certainly present at less than 1%.

Some common preservatives:

  • Ones that end with “isoazolinone” e.g. Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone
  • Ones that end with “azolidinyl urea” e.g. Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Parabens e.g. Methylparaben, Ethylparaben
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Food preservatives: sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate


Colorants or color additives are ingredients added to impart color or visual effects to a product. They include synthetic FD&C and D&C dyes, which give bright hues of color to a product like red, blue, and yellow. They also include mineral pigments like titanium dioxide, iron oxides, chromium oxide greens, etc. The amount of color included can vary greatly depending on the type of product, but all colorants should still be named at the end of the list.

 Fillers, thickeners, stabilizers

After the main ingredients formulas will often include smaller amounts of ingredients meant to modify  the product. These include thickeners like gums and carbomer, also solubilizers like Polysorbates and PEG ingredients. You may also see pH adjusting ingredients like citric acid or sodium hydroxide.

  1. D) Where do ingredients present at less than 1% start?

After the first few main ingredients, it’s not easy to tell how much of the remaining ingredients are in a product because of the “less than 1%” rule. Ingredient levels vary, so even landmark ingredients mentioned above are moving targets.

Yet it is possible to get a ballpark sense of where the less than 1% zone starts and whether beneficial ingredients are present in effective levels. Look to see if cosmetic actives occur before ingredients like preservatives, fragrance, polysorbates, carbomer, gums and cellulose. These ingredients tend to be in the 0.5-2.0% range or higher. If you see ingredients after preservatives, EDTA, BHA, BHT, citric acid or sodium hydroxide, likely the amounts used are miniscule and not enough to provide real benefit

See also:


  1. E) Examples of ingredient lists and how to decode them


  • Green = main ingredients
  • Purple = fragrance
  • Red = preservatives
  • Blue = colorants
  • Black = other ingredients (thickeners, fillers, vitamins, essential oils, etc.)

Ingredients in a basic lotion:

Ingredient Function
Water  Majority of the formula
Soybean (Glycine Soja) Oil  Natural emollient and skin conditioner
Cetearyl Alcohol Natural-based emollient and formula stabilizer
Glyceryl Stearate  Natural-based emollient and formula stabilizer
PEG 100 Stearate  Fatty acid with polyethylene glycol (PEG), used as a stabilizer
Glycerin  Natural humectant (moisturizer)
Dimethicone  Silicone that adds glide to the formula, also an emollient
Fragrance/Parfum  Scent
Aloe Vera Natural skin conditioner
Shea Butter Natural emollient
Methylparaben, Propylparaben Preservatives
Tocopherol  Vitamin E
Carbomer Thickener
Tetrasodium EDTA Metal chelator (sequester)
BHA Protects oils from oxidation
Sodium Hydroxide pH balancer
Sodium Citrate, Citric Acid pH balancer


Generic / Leading Brand Formulas – Lotions and Creams

INGREDIENTS: Water, Mineral Oil (Paraffinum Liquidum), Glycerin, Capric/Caprylic Triglyceride, Stearic Acid, Cetyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Dimethicone, Carbomer, Ceteareth 20, Sodium Hydroxide, Sodium Citrate, Panthenol, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Extract, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Fragrance, Citric Acid,  Ethylparaben

[Notice how Panthenol (Pro-vitamin B5) and Green Tea are not among the main ingredients, and are listed after Sodium Hydroxide and Sodium Citrate, which are usually present between 0.01-0.1%. Therefore with certainty both are “less than 1%” ingredients]



INGREDIENTS: Water, Mineral Oil (Paraffinum Liquidum), Stearic Acid, Glyceryl Stearate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Propylene Glycol, Stearyl Alcohol, Fragrance, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Seed Butter, Lanolin, Methylparaben, Disodium EDTA, Diazolidinyl Urea, FD&C Yellow 6 Aluminum Lake, FD&C Red 40 (CI 16035), D&C Red 33 (CI 17200)

[Notice how Cocoa Butter is not one of the main ingredients, and is listed after fragrance, which is usually present between 0.1-2%. Based on labeling rules, the level of Cocoa Butter will be less than the level of fragrance if they are present above 1%. If fragrance is present below 1%, Cocoa Butter must also be below 1% in order to be listed afterward. Therefore the estimated level of Cocoa Butter is roughly 2% at most but possibly much lower.]



INGREDIENTS: Water, Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil, Isopropyl Myristate, Glycerin, Cetearyl Alcohol, Glyceryl Stearate, PEG 100 Stearate, PEG/PPG 18/18 Dimethicone, Tetrasodium EDTA, Acrylates/C10 30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Magnesium Aluminium Silicate, Xanthan Gum, Olea Europaea (Olive) Leaf Extract, Triethanolamine, Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Diazolidinyl Urea, Niacinamide, BHT, Fragrance

[Notice how Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) is listed after EDTA, Xanthan Gum and the preservatives, meaning it is present at less than 1% given typical use levels of these ingredients]



INGREDIENTS: Water (Aqua), Glycerin, Stearic Acid, Isopropyl Myristate, Mineral Oil, Glyceryl Stearate, Glycol Stearate, Dimethicone, Peg-100 Stearate, Petrolatum, Cetyl Alcohol, Tapioca Starch, Phenoxyethanol, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Methylparaben, Fragrance (Parfum), Acrylates/c10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Propylparaben, Disodium EDTA, Xanthan Gum, Stearamide AMP, Hydroxyethyl Urea, Propylene Glycol, Avena Sativa (Oat) Extract, Titanium Dioxide (CI 77891).

[Notice how Oat Extract is listed after the preservatives, EDTA and Xanthan Gum, which all have use levels of less than 1%, so Oat Extract is also present at less than 1%]



Generic / Leading Brand Formulas – Hair Conditioners 

INGREDIENTS: Water, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol, Macrocystis Pyrifera (Kelp) Extract, Crithmum Maritimum Extract, Magnesium Sulfate, Ceteareth-20, Glycerin, Arachidyl Alcohol, Cetrimonium Chloride, Behentrimonium Chloride, Distearyldimonium Chloride, Polyquaternium-70, Polyquaternium-11, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Dipropylene Glycol, Tetrasodium EDTA, Citric Acid, Fragrance, Linalool, Limonene, Hexyl Cinnamal, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Phenoxyethanol.

INGREDIENTS: Water, Stearyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Cetyl Alcohol, Bis Aminopropyl Dimethicone, Fragrance, Benzyl Alcohol, Dicetyldimonium Chloride, Disodium EDTA, Panthenol, Panthenyl Ethyl Ether, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone


Generic / Leading Brand Formulas – Shampoos

INGREDIENTS: Water, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Glycol Distearate, Dimethicone, Sodium Citrate, Cocamide MEA, Fragrance, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Chloride, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Tetrasodium EDTA, Polyquaternium 6, Panthenol, Panthenyl Ethyl Ether, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone.

INGREDIENTS: Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Xylenesulfonate, Cocamide MEA, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Glycol Distearate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Chloride, Dimethicone, Vitis Vinifera (Grape Seed) Oil, Fragrance, Sodium Citrate, PEG-150 Distearate, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Salicylic Acid, Tetrasodium EDTA, Polyquaternium-6, Methylparaben, Yellow 5, Red 33


Generic / Leading Brand Formulas – Facial Cleanser

INGREDIENTS: Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Glycerin, Acrylates Crosspolymer, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, Sodium Hydroxide, Menthyl Lactate, Fragrance, Disodium EDTA, Cellulose, Citric Acid, Mannitol, Xylitol, Menthol, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Polygonum Fagopyrum Flour (Buckwheat), Ethylparaben, Caffeine, Polybutylene Terephthalate, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Extract, Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Fruit Extract, Carica Papaya (Papya) Fruit Extract, Algin, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Hydroxypropylmethylcellulose, Ethylene/VA Copolymer, Mica, Titanium Dioxide, Talc, Chromium Hydroxide Green (CI 77289), Iron Oxides, Yellow 10

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