How To Read A Cosmetic Ingredient List

how to read ingredient lists

Beauty products are required to have a list of ingredients printed somewhere on the packaging. Finding this list is not always easy. While it is usually printed on the box or the packaging, it can also be found underneath the product label or barcode. If this is the case, you will see a small arrow, just follow it. If a product comes with a leaflet, this can include the list of ingredients as well.

But the ingredients can have long and difficult names and not everyone knows what any of them are and do. So, how do you read it? And why should you learn to do it?

Why is it important to read an ingredient list?

Being able to read these lists is very important for several reasons. By knowing which ingredients are used in a product you can make sure to avoid those that could cause you allergies or irritations. You can also decide for yourself which ingredients you prefer to use on your skin.

In addition, you’ll be able to know if a product does what it claims and if you can find a cheaper alternative. Very often, in fact, the active ingredients of drugstore and high-end products are the same.

Also, lots of products claim to contain Vitamins and other natural ingredients that are beneficial for the skin. And are more expensive because of it. But if you look at the ingredient list, more often than not, you realise that these ingredients are present in such low concentrations that don’t provide any benefits at all.

ingredient list

Names of ingredients

According to the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) system, ingredients must be named using their scientific and, for plants, Latin names. But to make things easier, the English names are often put in parenthesis. For instance Shea Butter is often listed as Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter).

Order of ingredients

The Federal Trade Commission orders that the ingredients have to be listed in order of concentration. Ingredients that are present in higher amounts in the formula go on the top of the list.  The active ingredients can also be listed in a separate list.


Like every rule, this one has its exceptions too. Ingredients that are present at a concentration below 1% can be listed in any order. Color additives, no matter what their concentrations are, can be listed in any order, after all the other non color additive ingredients. But usually, they’re listed last, just like fragrances and preservatives. In addition, some cosmetics are also drugs. In this case, the drugs ingredients are listed before the cosmetic ingredients.

Low concentrations

But how do you know when the concentrations start to be low? Usually, the first ingredients in the lists are synthetic and when you start seeing natural ingredients it means the concentrations are under 1%. That’s because natural ingredients are generally more expensive and less effective than synthetic ones and hence, companies only put small amounts of them in a product. However, that’s not always true as sometimes natural ingredients can be present in high amounts in a product, in which case it’ll be listed towards the top. In addition, not all ingredients present in small concentrations are totally ineffective. Some of them still provide some benefits but as a general rule, the more there is the better it works.

What does “and other ingredients” mean?

Some labels also use the phrase “and other ingredients”. What does that mean? Simply put, certain ingredients are considered as “trade secrets” and because of that, the FDA doesn’t require the name to be revealed on the list.

I hope this post has helped in deciphering those confusing ingredient lists. Do you have pay attention to them when you shop for something new?

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  1. says

    this is an excellent post!
    sigh im just too lazy to check whether those ingredients are pore clogging or not.
    i dont usually develop any allergies to products as my skin is not really sensitive.

    the oddess thing is that i break out from mineral concealers?
    hmm, wonder what went wrong 😛
    .-= LyNn´s last blog ..Konad Stamping Nail Art 4 (M56-5) =-.

  2. beautifulwithbrains says

    Renee: you’re welcome. Ingredients usually have such complicated names it can be hard to read a label. There are lots of resources on the net, like, that have some great ingredients dictionaries. They’re very helpful :)

    Paris B: you’re welcome. I feel the same way too :) But I agree with your girls, it’s very important to know what we put on our skin.

    LyNn: thanks. I’m not sure why mineral concealers break you out since I don’t know which products you used and the ingredients they contain, but I heard that Zinc Oxid and Titanium Dioxide, which are widely used in mineral makeup can clog pores in people with oily skin, esp when used in high concentrations. So, maybe that’s what’s causing the problem. I worte a post about comedogenic ingredients if you’re interested but keep in mind that it’s not a comprehensive list:

    Dao: thanks and good for you! I’m glad you do that, it’s so important and helpful. Yeah, you’e right, the first few ingredients are the most imporant ones, the other are usually preservatives, thickeners or just included for marketing purposes.

    Dee: thanks, and I’m really glad to hear that! Well done. My friends are the same and yeah, it is sad. Unfortunately they’ll regret it later when they realise how much they spent on products that don’t really work :(

    Robin: thanks. Yes, I do, everytime I buy some skincare or cosmetic products I usually spend ages at the counter looking at the ingredients lists and trying to select the best products for my skin. That’s really important. Your ebook sounds interesting, can’t wait to read it.

    Nikki: thank you, I’m glad you are and hope you find it helpful :)

    Ahleessa: you’re welcome and thanks. I agree with you 100%. :)


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