Read The Label On Beauty Products : How & Why.

We use a lot of beauty products on a day to day basis. Most of us are led by the “claims” the company or brand makes through advertising or technical sounding terms which more often than not prove false or misleading. It is important to cultivate the habit of reading product labels especially the ingredients list to know if they are indeed ‘walking the talk’ so to speak.

A cosmetic is defined as any article intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled or sprayed on, or introduced into, or otherwise applicated to, the human body or any part thereof for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance, and includes any article intended for use as a component of cosmetic.

The fact is that the rules and regulations governing the manufacturing and labelling of cosmetic products are not as strict as those of the pharmaceutical industry. Companies exploit the various loopholes that are present to lure gullible consumers with misleading information and false claims.

While you may not need in depth Chemical knowledge, it is essential to have basic knowledge as to how to read the labels and the traps to avoid when buying products. Here, we give you a few general pointers in that direction as it relates to personal care items..

  • Ingredients are labelled in the descending order of quantity. The ingredient mentioned first is the one that is present in the highest amounts. For example if the label says Aqua as the first ingredient it means the quantity of water in it is higher than the quantity of other ingredients. The ingredient present 2nd is 2nd highest in quantity and so on. So does it mean that the last ingredient is the one that is present the least?? There are exceptions:

Drug ingredients: If the product contains an ingredient which, besides being a cosmetic, is also a drug then it should be listed first. (Drugs and cosmetics, as defined by The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940.)

The 1% mark: Ingredients are to be listed in the decreasing order of their weight in the product till they reach the ingredient that is present in concentration of 1% in the product. The rest of the ingredients can be written in any order. A rough pointer is looking for the fragrance or parfum. More often than not ingredients listed below this ingredient can be generally written in any order.

Color additives: these ingredients come into the less than 1% category range hence mentioned in any order.

  • Ingredients are usually in accordance to their INCI (International Normenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) names. If the ingredients are few some companies might also print the common name of the ingredient in parenthesis. If not, google it. If you find long and difficult to read chemical names in the top 5-6 of the ingredient list always google it. Know what it is and why it is in the product. That helps you to decide, in most cases what constitutes the bulk of the product or the main ingredients and if or not they will be useful to you.
  • When you see products that say ‘dermatologically tested’ understand that it’s exactly what it means. That they have been tested on the skin. It DOES NOT mean that it has been tested on the skin for the results they ‘claim’ it will give. Be aware of the difference.
  • Don’t be misled by the terms ‘Natural’, ‘Herbal’, ‘Green’, ‘Non-Toxic’, ‘Clean’ ‘Organic’, ‘Chemical free’ etc. These terms are misrepresented a lot of the time to lure unsuspecting consumers to a product or to drag them away from some others. An example of this is ‘Kali Mehendi’ or black henna which is advertised and labelled as a safe alternative to metallic hair dyes. What you find on the labels of this product are terms like ‘Herbal’ ‘No Ammonia’, ‘Contains Amla, Shikakai, Reetha’ and other such words. In truth the black colour is obtained by adding a chemical called PPD (ParaPhenylamineDiamine) which is a harmful chemical that is present in many over the counter metallic hair dyes. PPD is mentioned in the ingredient list, but in such a way that someone who was unaware wouldn’t even suspect that it was unsafe.
  • Preservative free: Another term that is very grossly misrepresented is ‘preservative free’. Parabens are the most commonly used, recognized and maligned preservatives in skin care. While it has been conclusively proven to be safe people still tend to avoid it. While it is ok to look for products that contain ingredients of ones preference, looking for preservative free ones is asking for trouble. And you can be sure that any product that contains water (cream or lotion based) or any product that has a chance of coming into the slightest contact with water, should and does contain a preservative. A lot of ‘Natural’ product based companies avoid mentioning the word “preservative” on the label and instead mention the chemical name of the preservative which isn’t easily discernible or list ingredients like Vitamin A, Tea tree oil, Grapefruit seed extracts, citric acid etc. as preservatives. They are NOT. Each one of those ingredients has a different purpose in a formulation but none of them are effective as preservatives.
  • ‘Other Ingredients’ : What does this mean? When a company creates a unique formulation and gets it patented, they don’t have to mention the ‘secret ingredient’ in that formulation on the label and can simply say ‘other ingredients’ which is understood to be the ingredient/s that makes the product unique.
  • ‘May Contain’: When a company brings out a range of products that contain essentially the same composition with minor ingredient changes like colour or fragrance added to differentiate it from the others in the same group, the company prints one label for all the products listing the ingredients with an added ‘May contain’ column where it lists all the ingredients that differentiate one product in that range from another. (Or) it may contain ingredients that the product may have come into contact with during manufacturing, in cases where the same equipment has been used to make different formulations. People with allergies to certain products need to pay special attention to this list.


Let’s reinforce the importance of reading ingredient lists on the label with a simple example:

For example: When you see a product by a ‘brand’ that says “Almond drops” with Vitamin E. As a consumer you assume it contains Almond oil and Vitamin E oil as the main ingredients.

Claims on the Label: “Enriched with Almond Oil” “Nourishes the Scalp, keeps the hair healthy and beautiful” “Non-Sticky Light weight oil” Lists Almond oil and vitamin E under “benefits”. “Keeps hair healthy and strong.”

Here is the ingredient list: “Mineral oil-77%, Vegetable oils including sweet almond oil- 21.2%, Vitamin E, Perfume, TBHQ, CL- 47000, 26100.”

Reading this ingredient list tells you that:

  • 77% of this oil is mineral oil.
  • Vegetable oils including almond oil make up 21.2%. So in effect, they don’t mention the exact amount of almond oil present or even the names or quantities of the vegetable oils present.
  • The remaining ingredients Vitamin E, perfume (name not mentioned), TBHQ (preservative) and CL-47000 & 26100(Colourants) make up 1.8% of the whole.

Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

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