How To Read Cosmetic Ingredients Lists

    If there is one thing you can do to get in control of your hair and skin, it's learning the basics of cosmetic ingredients. The ingredient list tells you the truth about the cosmetic, not the manufacturer's description. Let's compare cosmetic shopping to shopping digital cameras: would you look for specs like "12x zoom, 12 megapixels and 2.7" display" or would you be satisfied with a description like "this cutting-edge camera will make your photos look amazing"?
    Also, recognising which ingredients work for you and which don't, makes choosing products much easier. Instead of saying "noooo, yet another moisturiser is blocking my pores", you can say "oh, this contains beeswax and my skin doesn't like beeswax."
   A couple of years back I though that someone who understands cosmetic ingredients is terribly smart and educated, but I now know it's not so hard. With a bit of practice you can do it too. I have already written the easy guide to reading cosmetic labels. Here I have written a bit more on the topic:

   First, a secret: you don't actually need to understand each and every ingredient! Recognising just a couple tells me a lot about the product. Mineral oil? Cheaply made product. All four parabens? The rest is probably just as toxic. Silicone? The product wants to fake a moisturising effect.

Three Rules Of Reading Cosmetic Ingredients:

Rule 1: The ingredients are always listed according to quantity. So if you see a cream "with olive oil" and the ingredients read "mineral oil, aqua, glycerine, oilive oil, ..." you'll know that the cream contains way more crappy mineral oil than olive oil.

Rule 2: Ingredients that make up less that 1% of the product are listed at the end, in alphabetical order. These include scents, colours, conservants as well as active ingredients (when there is very little of it because of the recipe or saving money). Remember that conservants, even though in tiny quantities, can also irritate the skin.

Rule 3: Everyone's skin is different, so it's up to you to find out what your skin and hair like. An ingredient that doesn't block your pores may block mine. Proteins may make my hair bouncy but yours heavy.

A small handbook of cosmetic ingredients:

   Here I want to give an overview of some ingredients that can be problematic.

Parfum/fragrance: the ingredients of perfume don't have to be declared, so producers are free to stick whatever toxic and irritating stuff they want inside. And they do -- the fragrance is often the most toxic part of many products. Only certain fragrances (those seen as most harmful by the EU comission) have to be listed separately: for eg. Limonene, Linalool, Citronellol, Geraniol, Coumarin, Citral, Benzyl Benzoate, Eugenol. Avoid all perfumes if you have a sensitive skin. Fragrances in certified natural products are made of essential oils and are safe.

Detergents: Avoid SLS and SLES (soldium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl ether sulfate) which are harsh, aggressive detergents. They usually are in cleansers, soaps, shampoos and toothpaste but sometimes appear in conditioners and skin masks.

Conservants: Not all of these are bad. For example lactic acid or vitamin C are great skin-friendly conservants. Others, like -paraben, DMDM Hydantoin, 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3-Dioxane, 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol, Diazolidynyl Urea, Imidiazolidynyl Urea, Phenyl Benzoate, Phenyl Dimethicone, Formaldehyde, Methylchloroisothiazolinone) should be avoided.

Humectants: moisturuisers, they attract water. Glycerine, urea, mel (honey), hyaluronan, d-panthenol, aloe vera are great, skin-friendly moisturisers.

Emolients: Seal the moisture in or out. Includes oil, other fats and silicones. Plant-based are good (from plants, seeds nuts, etc), as well as lanolin, butters (such as shea butter), beeswax (cera alba). Avoid mineral oil / paraffinum liquidum. When it comes to silicones, avoid in skin care but a bit of water-soluble silicones in hair products are ok, as long as they are not at the top of the ingredient list.

Alcohol: avoid alcohol denat (also listed simply as alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol -- they are drying and aggressive and should rather be avoided, except in the cases where they are the carriers of the plant essences. The alcohol in natural cosmetics is supposed to be much gentler, and is usually fine for skin that doesn't have problems like fragile capillaries. Alcohols other than denat and isopropyl are actually emollients, and are ok.

Proteins: Great for porous hair, but in moderation, since too often protein treatments make the hair rough or weighed down. Hydrolyzed Silk, Hydrolyzed Keratin, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Hydrolyzed Oat Protein are common proteins.

Antioxidants: vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), vit E (Tocopherol), coenzyme Q10 (Ubiquinone), vit A (Retinol or Retinyl Acetale or Palmitate), vit B3 (Niacinamide). Each of these has a very different role, and also different side effects (for example Retinol can be very drying while vit C increases the skins sensitivity to sunlight). So inform yourself about them before you buy!

For further reading, I recommend:

10 toxic ingredients to avoid
Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary by The Cosmetics Cop
Skin Deep analyses the toxicity of your cosmetics for you
   And of course on Venusian*Glow I have discussed ingredients that I found especially great for my skin and hair (or especially crappy).

   Are there any specific ingredients that you always watch out for? Do you know of a nifty website that helps you with understanding ingredients? 

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