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How to Understand a Cosmetic Label

Buying skincare products for yourself or your loved ones can be confusing. You want to make sure you don’t have any yucky, toxic stuff in there, but it can be hard to tell. Looking at the ingredient list is what most people do, but there is a lot more information on a label than just that. And often times, these labels are deliberately deceiving. 

Labels are meant to look nice and appealing, but don’t let cleaver marketing lead you in your purchase choice.  Fancy packages and vague or misleading wording can make you think a product is not what it really is. 

Ingredient List

The list of ingredients should be straightforward right? Well often that is not the case. Some labels have the INCI list, which stands for international nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients. It might seem overwhelming to read, but really it is just the scientific names for each ingredient.

For example, olive oil is olea europaea olive fruit oil. Plant based ingredients are sometimes listed with their Latin names in parentheses. However, there will often be other ingredients that can sound like nasty chemicals. They might sound bad, but there are also plenty of safe plant derived ingredients that have names you wouldn’t be able to easily pronounce. 'Tocopherals' is a great example. It sounds like the name of a chemical but it's actually just Vitamin E and it's typically derived from soybeans (there are other plant derivatives as well). It's most commonly used to preserve freshness of a product but also has some skin-soothing properties. To check some of these ingredients, the EWG has a great database.

The order of ingredients is also relevant. The ingredients are listed in the order from highest amount to least amount in the product.

Example of a Misleading Product Label

Now let’s take a look at a leave in conditioner by Desert Essence Organics. It’s under the Organics label so you would think it’s a fairly clean product, right? Well you might be surprised to know that the EWG rates this as an 5 out of 10 for concern for it’s ingredients. Fragrance as well as limonene are known for various levels of toxicity.

There is also a call out on the label to all the things that it doesn't contain, like parabens, EDTA, and silicones. Most consumers don't know what a product shouldn't contain in the first place... silcone should never be in conditioner. This is a classic distraction tactic that attempts to convince the consumer that a product is clean and that ingredients are all high quality, since it does not contain anything in their scary sounding list. However, unfortunately this is often just clever marketing and doesn't always mean the product is clean.

For more details on ingredients, read our blog “What is Actually in your “Natural” Skincare?”

Label Symbols and Claims

Symbols on skincare and cosmetic labels can show you important information quickly, but not everyone is aware what every symbol means. We’ll cover some the top symbols you're likely to see while shopping for personal care products.

Best Before Date

Expiration date is typically shown as a BBE (best before end) date or as a jar with the time frame. The jar signifies that once it is opened it needs to be used before that many months.

Plastic Recycling Symbols

This symbol means that the package is recyclable and shows the type of plastic that a container is made of so that it can be properly recycled. Unfortunately, many of these plastics aren't actually recyclable and plastic can generally only be recycled once or twice before it winds up in a landfill. In fact, plastics #1 and #2 are typically the only type that can be recycled. To read more about this subject, Our World Data has a very in-depth report on all the various types of plastic. 


USDA Organic Seal

This specific seal is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and in order to include it on packaging, a company must meet USDA organic standards. However, in order to use this seal, businesses must pay thousands of dollars in fees for each product which makes it cost prohibitive for many smaller businesses to use. Additionally, the USDA only regulates agriculture products, so only cosmetics and personal care products that have food-grade quality ingredients can obtain this seal. The best way to determine whether a personal care product uses organic ingredients is to look on the ingredient list and see whether they're listed as organic. Brands cannot list an ingredient as organic if it's not actually organic. 

Peta Cruelty-Free Bunny Seal

The bunny seal signifies that the product is not tested on animals. This seal is not regulated by any official government agency. It's overseen by Peta, a third-party, private organization, that reviews products submitted by brands for review. To qualify, companies have to sign a letter indicating that they don't test their products on animals. It costs a lot of money to get this seal on your products and you generally only find it on larger, more established brands that are part of a  corporation. The cruelty-free and vegan claims don't mean that a product is natural or that it does not contain non-toxic ingredients. 

Leaping Bunny Seal

The Leaping Bunny seal is a different, more stringent measure for non-animal tested products. This seal is overseen by Cruelty Free International. To qualify, organizations must open their manufacturing to independent audits to ensure that no animals are harmed in the process. Again, typically larger brands will go for this seal because it's very labor intensive and expensive to secure. However, this seal doesn't indicate that a product is made exclusively of natural ingredients. In fact there are plenty of brands that contain toxic ingredients that also have this seal. 

leaping bunny seal

You can pretty confidently assume that most small companies also don't have the funds to test their products on animals. It's also important to note that the lack of the symbol does not mean a product was tested on animals. For example, we have never tested our products on animals and we also don't have this seal. We may opt to apply for the seal later down the line, but it's takes a lot of work and money to make it happen. We donate a percentage of our company profit to charity and seeking out use of these sorts of seals would cut into our ability to give back. 


Vegan is a classic claim that consumers often mistake for thinking that a personal care product is natural and non-toxic. If a product is vegan, it means that it's not made with any by-products. Beeswax is a very natural ingredient, but using it would prevent you from claiming that a product is vegan. Beeswax is made by bees and that means it's an animal by-product. Silicone is a man-made, unnatural product and using it would allow you to indicate that a product is vegan. Silicone is not an animal by-product. Many people have opted to use vegan products and we respect that decision immensely. However, vegan does not necessarily equal a clean, natural, non-toxic product. 


The US government does not regulate the use of the term "hypoallergenic" on product labels. Brands often use it to indicate that a product is unlikely to cause an allergic reaction, but they aren't actually required to run tests to prove this claim. This term also has no bearing on whether a product contains gentler, non-toxic ingredients.