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How To Read Ingredients Lists on Skincare Labels

How To Read Ingredients Lists on Skincare Labels

If you’re serious about switching to clean skincare products, it’s time to get up close and personal with the ingredients lists on your bathroom staples. In this article you’ll learn how to read ingredients lists and why this matters.

Beauty brands seem to have become experts in making bold claims about their products and the ingredients they use in them. Words like ‘green’, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are used as buzz words to attract and entice you into buying their products.

After a while you’d almost get suspicious, and you start seeing every slogan as a green-washing marketing scheme.

There’s only one way to separate the makers from the fakers. Educate yourself about what the mumbo jumbo on their labels actually means. Because knowledge is power!

Why are all the names on labels in Latin?

Every product should have a clear, easy to find ingredients list on their packaging. You might find it on the product itself or on the outer packaging.

Once you’ve located the ingredients list, you’ll notice that this is only step 1.

Even the ingredients on the back of your clean beauty products can seem like a random selection of letters put together.

That’s because all ingredients lists have to use the official INCI terms. INCI stands for ‘International Nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients’.

The INCI makes brands use the scientific name of ingredients. This way it’s more transparent and recognizable around the globe.

This scientific (often Latin derived) name might make a biochemist or skincare formulator’s heart skip a beat. But for the average consumer this seems to have the opposite effect, unfortunately.

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Most brands are picking up on the fact that consumers are learning more and more about skincare and the ingredients in it.

Following this trend, lots of brands are also mentioning the English version of the ingredient. That’s why you’ll see mentions like cera alba (beeswax), butyrospermum parkii (shea butter) and simmondsia chinensis (jojoba oil).

This makes your job as a concerned buyer a lot easier, as you (almost) don’t have to learn how to read ingredients lists anymore. They’re just spelling it out for you.

So far, so good.

Thanks to this approach, brands have made it easier for you to spot the butters, waxes and oils in your skincare products.

But you’ll still find terms that aren’t accompanied by an explanation. Then what? Below I’ve listed the most common names you’ll find on both regular commercial high street or drugstore brands, and clean beauty products.


If you were hoping for an exotic ingredient when you first spotted Tocopherol, you’re out of luck.

Tocopherol is nothing more than the scientific name for vitamin E.

Vitamin E is considered an antioxidant. This ingredient is often added to products as it can help slow down the oxidization process of the oils present in the product.

You’ll usually find it at the bottom of the list, as you only need to use a small amount in your products.

Brands have to disclose all the ingredients that they’ve used in a product. But there is no way to tell what amount is used for each ingredient. That is a brand’s best kept secret.

What you can decipher is which ingredient is used the most in your product. These are found at the beginning of the list.

Usually this is a very uninteresting ingredient called aqua. Which is the INCI’s term for water.

The further you move down the list, the smaller the amount of the ingredient will be that’s present in the product.

This is also valuable information. Sometimes active ingredients only require small amounts to be effective or they’re so potent they should be used sparingly. Like tocopherol.

But if for example a product claims to use evening primrose oil and you find it all the way down at the bottom of the list, you know they’re just using it as a marketing ploy.

how to read cosmetic labels

Linalool, limonene, citronellol, geraniol and eugenol

Hanging out near the tocopherol are a lot of funny sounding names that usually (but not exclusively) end in -ol.

These are components that occur in essential oils, and are considered allergens.

This shows that just because an ingredient is natural, it doesn’t mean it can’t irritate your skin.

Brands have to mention them on their ingredients lists as people who know that they’re allergic to these components will stay clear from these products.

Or maybe you don’t know if you’re allergic to them, yet.

Compare the ingredients lists of products that have caused you eczema, skin rashes or other skin conditions and read them all the way down to the bottom. Now compare them to each other. There’s a good chance you’ll find an ingredient lingering here that they all have in common.

Here you can find a full list of fragrance substances that are considered to cause allergic reactions.

Potassium Sorbate, sodium benzoate and benzoic acid

These are all correct, scientific names for preservatives that might appear in your product.

As soon as the product contains water or comes in contact with water, the product must contain a preservative. Otherwise all types of bacteria can start to grow in your product. Even if it’s not visible to the naked eye.

Preservatives have a bad reputation, especially after parabens (a common used preservative) received some very bad press in recent years.

The names listed above, however, are all considered preservatives accepted in natural, clean skincare products.

Cetearyl Alcohol and Cetyl Alcohol

Both of these are emulsifiers that can be derived from natural sources.

When a products contains both water and oil, an emulsifier is used to make sure the two will blend together and, even more importantly so, stay together.

Cetearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol are both a fatty alcohol. These are not to be confused with ethanol or pure alcohol. Unlike ethanol, these types are not considered to be as drying or irritating for your skin.

What ingredients to avoid in your skincare

Now you know that there are a lot of scary sounding ingredients – that are actually nothing to be scared off after all. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Contrary to what you might think, there is no fixed list with commonly used ingredients that should be avoided by anyone, at all times, at all cost.

Keep in mind that ingredients in skincare and beauty brands are already fairly regulated. Some countries have more strict regulations than others, but you can generally assume that ingredients which are detrimental to your health will/should not be present in your skincare or are used in very small amounts at the least.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all of the ingredients you find on the label are what YOU are looking for in a skincare product.

The most common reason to skip an ingredient is because you’ve noticed it irritates your skin. Another reason could be that it just doesn’t fit in with what you’re looking for in skincare products.

If you’re vegan, for example, you’ll want to avoid animal derived products like beeswax.

Mineral oil for example is approved for cosmetic use, but it’s made from petroleum. I’d understand why you’d want to avoid that.

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Some people love particular skincare products for their smell, and find this a must in their search for a new product. A lot of users are allergic however to fragrances and perfume, and want to avoid these ingredients all together.

Lastly, there are some ingredients that are regularly used in skincare, but are known to be irritating to the skin for some. Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLeS) are common ingredients found in soaps and shampoos, but they are sometimes found to be drying/harsh for sensitive skin.

Hooray! Now you know how to read the ingredients lists on your beauty products. They are no longer just random, funny names at the back of your products.

But truth be told, we’ve barely scratched the surface.

There are so many more ingredients we haven’t talked about yet. Don’t be surprised if you pick up a product in your bathroom and find a whole lot of new names to confuse you.

Search an Ingredient Database

I like to use the EWG SkinDeep Cosmetics Database to help guide me into the vast realm of cosmetic ingredients.

Here you can just type in the ingredient you want to learn more about and they’ll give you a score and a list of possible concerns. You can also enter a product directly, and they’ll give you a score for each ingredient that’s in it.

Want to find out what the best way is to know what’s in your beauty products? Just make them yourself!

Start making your own natural cosmetics from the comfort of your own home. I have over 200 easy recipes to make your own beauty products on this website!

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Learn how to properly read the ingredients lists of your skincare and other beauty products. This way you know what ingredients to avoid and what ingredients you should look out for. Buzz words and green washing marketing schemes won't have any effect on you anymore!

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