How to Read a Label


Whilst lurking around in the Liberty cafe, earwigging at women chatting over green tea and gluten-free toast, or nonchalantly strolling up and down the cosmetics hall at Selfridges, I hear a moan escape from many a glossed lip: “I really want to buy non toxic beauty products but it does my head in trying to remember what to avoid.” 

I hear you – and I have a dream: to invent some kind of label scanning app with flashing lights and alarm bells and maybe an electric shock mechanism that will cause you to immediately drop that toxic body lotion that you so foolishly contemplated purchasing, and then lure you towards the safety of a natural alternative – possibly by playing soothing whale music as you stumble into the vicinity of the perfect product. Until that day arrives the best I can do is attempt to enlighten you as to how to properly decipher what is written on cosmetics packaging.

Here at the ops room, Good Glamour Towers, I have developed all manner of sleuthing methods for ferreting out elusive information about the good, the bad and the downright ugly ingredients in cosmetics. I bug people with emails; I read books and research papers; I interview experts; I google – a lot. But unfailingly, the key investigative method that I return to again and again is reading the label.

Are you ready to give it a go? You will need:

  • The box your product came in
  • A magnifying glass or strong pair of spectacles
  • A couple of aspirin

Manufacturers must list ingredients on their packaging in ways that are prescribed by law. The rules are broadly similar in the EU; USA and Australia.

  • Firstly, the list must be legible.
  • It must use standard chemical names from the INCI dictionary (that’s the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, dummy).
  • The ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight. So for instance, if the first ingredient is aqua, that means that there is more water in the product than anything else.
  • Ingredients that constitute less than 1% by weight can be listed in any order at the end.
  • If the product contains perfume, that will be listed as ‘perfume’; ‘parfum’ or aroma.
  • Colours must be listed last, using the CI (Colour Index) numbers.


There is one other piece of information that’s worth being aware of, that is the ‘use within’ symbol. It looks like a little pot with the lid open and cadres a number followed by the letter M. This denotes how many months the product will safely last after opening – so, 6M means it will last 6 months whilst 36M means it will last for 3 years! The longer the product lasts, the more likely it is to be stuffed with artificial preservatives. I will write more on this topic. For now I will say that, as a broad rule, non-toxic products have a life after opening of between 6 and 12 months.

Apart from the ingredients list there is much that can be gleaned from what is said, or not said on the packaging. Manufacturers use all kinds of weasel language to sell us the story that their product is cleaner, greener and more effective than it really is. Read this before you fall for any of it.

Here are a few terms that mean nothing whatsoever:

  • Natural
  • Organic
  • Eco
  • Green

Which brings us to the the words that do mean something, the actual ingredients list… mineral oil; PEG-7 dimethicone C8-C18 ester; octinoxate; methylisothiazolinone; BHT; propylparaben… what does it all mean?! Well, if you really want to know you can do as I do and spend half your life boggling your brain over on the Cosmetics Database.

“That’s all very well,” I hear you cry, “but I’d like to find out what is in my products before I spend hours traipsing round department stores reading tiny ant writing on make-up boxes like some kind of eccentric Miss Marple on a mission.” There’s a simple answer to that: Google! Many beauty brands work hard to keep their ingredients off the internet. As a rule of thumb, if the manufacturers don’t publish full ingredients lists on their website I ask myself, “what have they got to hide?”

This may all feel like information overload. It’s good to be informed, that way we get to make positive choices but, really, my top tip is to avoid the hassle by sticking to brands and products that you know you can trust – and those are the only products that we write about here on the Good Glamour Guide.

This article was originally published on The Good Glamour Guide.

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