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How to Read Clean Beauty Labels

Smiling woman with a towel on her head holding a jar of cream in front of her eye is happy the clean beauty claims of her product are true

Are your clean beauty products truly “clean?”

Key takeaways:

  • Use a credible source to find the meanings of unfamiliar ingredients

  • Just because an ingredient is long and hard to pronounce doesn’t mean it’s unsafe

  • The earlier the ingredient is listed on the label, the greater the concentration

  • Check for the product’s preservation method

  • A “natural” product doesn’t mean 100% of the ingredients are natural

  • “Clean” is an unregulated term

  • The term “parfum” can mean natural or synthetic fragrances

  • Natural fragrances don’t last as long as synthetic ones

  • Products with the label “fragrance-free” cannot add any chemicals to mask a smell

  • Products labeled “unscented” are misleading and may have fragrance added

Have you ever looked at the label of a beauty product? It can be a confusing mishmash of vague or deliberately deceptive marketing. There’s a big push for clean, natural, and pure products now, but understanding what’s really inside can be difficult. The clean beauty claims can be hard to decipher.

Some companies use vague terms when they describe their products to come off as healthy or organic. Other companies take advantage of laws to obscure the true nature of their products. They want to hide that their products aren’t as natural or clean as they claim.

You can protect yourself from these tactics by knowing how to read the ingredients on a label. Here’s a guide to reading cosmetic labels, what to look for in clean products, and how to know if it’s a pretend clean product.

Don’t know what an ingredient is? Go to a credible source

If you don’t understand what some labels’ incomprehensible ingredients mean, whip out your phone and Google them! Use a credible source like the FDA’s page on Cosmetic Products & Ingredients. Companies are required to list their ingredients on the package, but they aren’t required to help you understand it.

Even if a term sounds innocent, Google it if you’re not 100% sure what it means. Make sure to read trusted academic and scientific sources. Some innocent-sounding terms may hide harmful side effects or allergens.

You aren’t the only one struggling with confusing ingredients. Many beauty industry experts often have trouble decoding some of the abstract-sounding terms. You shouldn’t hesitate to take the extra step to understand them. The FDA also has a helpful fact sheet for small businesses and homemade cosmetics.

Keep in mind, also, that a long, unfamiliar word doesn’t automatically mean it’s a harmful ingredient. Some unusual-sounding ingredients are merely Latin. In many cases, the company will include the meaning or translation in parentheses after the term.

How concentrated are specific ingredients?

Are you curious about the concentration of ingredients in your products? There’s a simple way to “guesstimate” how much of something is in a product. Ingredients in beauty products are listed just like those in food products.

Look at the list of ingredients. The first item on the list has the highest concentration. The second ingredient has the second-most concentration, and so on. The last item on the list will have the lowest concentration level used.

How is the product preserved?

Some folks like products with no preservatives, but there’s a problem with that. Does your product list water as one of the ingredients? It’s usually the first. If so, the product you’re using has to be preserved in some way. If your product doesn’t have preservatives, it will mold and produce bacteria. Gross!

Some preservatives are necessary for your protection. Find out what kinds of preservatives are in your products. Does it include parabens? You may want to switch to something different.

The University of Reading in the UK published a report showing high levels of parabens in the tumors of human breasts. Parabens get into our bodies in many ways. You may as well take away one method for them to sneak in.

Look for other preservatives such as phenoxyethanol and ethylhexylglycerin. These are FDA-approved preservatives that have been found safe for use in cosmetics.

A label advertising clean beauty claims

Don’t take the term “natural” at face value

Clever beauty product companies have learned adding the word “natural” on the label attracts health-conscious customers. In some cases, it’s a deceptive practice by the companies. Laws allow manufacturers to use the word “natural” prominently on the label even with synthetic ingredients included.

These outdated laws allow up to 30% of the ingredients to be synthetic. If the percentage stays below that amount, they can boldly claim the product is “natural.” Companies are willing to bet their consumers won’t look closer at their labels. Don’t fall for their deception! The truth is right in the ingredients label.

Want to make sure you’re getting an all-natural product? Look for the phrase “100% Natural” on the label. If a product is labeled as “100% natural,” by law they are prohibited from using any synthetics. Another tip is to look for certification logos for added verification.

Don’t fall for the “clean” label trap

Certain terms sound very attractive, even when they’re based on nothing. These vague terms are aimed at people who want an all-natural or chemical-free lifestyle. Some companies count on their consumers to misinterpret the words. They deliberately use these words to create false impressions.

The term “clean” means its ingredients won’t cause a harmful reaction. A product labeled clean is not necessarily natural, despite how the labeling may appear. Clean products may have a mix of natural and synthetic products.

There is another problem with “clean” products. There are no government regulations regarding clean beauty products. The closest thing the industry has is the Environmental Working Group. This group is a private organization with a process companies must complete for certification.

Watch out for the term “organic”

Another word used in many products in multiple industries is “organic.” For any product to be certified organic in the United States, it must be certified by USDA organic standards.

A product can have no more than 5% synthetic materials to be certified organic. If you see the word “organic” on the label but no certification logo, chances are the product is not organic. It’s just a marketing ploy.

Navigating the “fragrance” minefield

Is there any other term that causes more confusion in the beauty industry? Some people like fragrances while others prefer to avoid them because of personal preference. If you have allergies to fragrances, understanding the terms is crucial.

First, it’s important to understand what “parfum” means. Parfum can refer to either natural or synthetic fragrances. Some companies may also use the words parfum, fragrance, or perfume interchangeably.

Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding fragrances:

  • Natural vs. synthetic fragrances - There is a trade-off for choosing natural over skipping the synthetic fragrances. The natural ones don’t last as long.

  • Fragrance-free - Want to make sure your products come without any additional smell? Look for the phrase “Fragrance-Free” on the label. Fragrance-free products cannot add any ingredients to hide or mask an existing scent in their products.

  • The “unscented” trap - “Unscented” is a very deceptive word. Products with this label may have fragrances added to mask a smell. Are you allergic to products with fragrances in them? Unscented products may still cause you an allergic reaction even if they don’t have a smell.

A little effort keeps you informed

You’re giving yourself knowledge by studying the labels on beauty products. You’ll know exactly what you are putting on your body. The old saying “knowledge is power” is true. Put in your homework and you’ll be able to weed out the bad products and stick to the healthy options available. Having this knowledge can lower the stress in your life.

The Artistry of Essential Oils products are formulated and blended with only pure essential oils derived from plants. Our products are free from toxins and harsh chemicals. We use only the highest quality, organic, 100% natural ingredients. Visit us today to see more.


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