How to Read Cosmetic Labels



Similar to the food industry, there’s an increasing consumer demand to know exactly what’s in cosmetics, skin care, and other personal care products. If you’re making a conscious effort to learn what’s in your favorite skin care products, you may have turned to the product’s back label only to be faced with an overwhelmingly long list of words that look like they’re written in a foregin language. Ammonium acryloyldimethyltaurate/Vp copolymer, Lauryl Methacrylate/Glycol Dimethacrylate Crosspolymer, and Lauryl PEG-9 polydimethylsiloxyethyl dimethicone are just a few common ingredients that you may find on a cosmetic label. With words like these, you may be wondering: how is it possible to learn to read cosmetic labels? While it may seem like a daunting task, it is definitely possible to learn to read cosmetic labels, and we will teach you how to do so in this post. In order to read cosmetic labels, we’ll cover cosmetic labelling requirements, the order of ingredients on a cosmetic label, understanding chemical names, and more below. 

What are the Best Skin Care Products of 2024?

What are cosmetic labelling requirements?

In order to learn how to read cosmetic labels, it’s important to have a good understanding of cosmetic labelling requirements so you know what to look for. Cosmetics marketed in the United States, whether manufactured here or imported from abroad, must be in compliance with the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FP&L Act). The FDA has issued regulations which cover cosmetic labelling requirements. The label for a cosmetic product must contain the following:

  • Identity of the product (what it is)
  • Net contents (how much is in the package, e.g. weight, measure, or numerical count)
  • Ingredient declaration (what it’s made of)
  • Any required warning labels

Cosmetic labelling requirements in Europe are regulated by the EU Cosmetics Regulation. According to the EU Cosmetics Regulation, the label for a cosmetic product must contain the following:

  • The name and the address of the company 
  • An ingredients list, in decreasing order of weight of the ingredients
  • The nominal net
  • Any warnings that might be necessary on how to use the product safely
  • A “date of minimum durability” (“best used before the end of”) or a “period after opening” to show for how long the product may be kept or used.
  • What the product is (if not obvious from its appearance)
  • A reference (batch number) for product identification
  • Country of origin (for products imported into the EU)

Why is there Latin on a cosmetic label?

It turns out that the ingredients on a cosmetic label not only seem to be written in a foreign language, some actually are written in a foreign language: Latin. When you see Latin on a label, it’s just the name of a botanical extract. For example, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis oil refers to sweet almond oil. Under the FPLA, however, the ingredients must be listed by their “common or usual names”. This is why sweet almond oil will typically appear like this on a cosmetic label: Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (sweet almond) oil.

The order of ingredients on a cosmetic label

Ingredients on a cosmetic label can be listed in two ways: alphabetically or by decreasing order of concentration, with the latter being the most common method. When ingredients on a cosmetic label are listed by concentration, the higher up on the ingredient list something is, the higher the concentration. You may notice that water is often the first ingredient on a cosmetic label, which means that water makes up the majority of the formula. 

Understanding that ingredients on a cosmetic label are listed by concentration is helpful in determining the concentrations of key ingredients in the product. For example, if a brand claims that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a key ingredient in a product, yet it is near the end of the ingredient list, you’ll know that the product is most likely not providing a sufficient amount of vitamin C to be effective. There are exceptions to this, however, such as with retinol. Research has shown that concentrations as low as 0.01% retinol are effective for improving multiple signs of aging. With most ingredients though, if it’s near the end of the ingredient list, the brand is using just enough to make claims about the ingredient yet using a low concentration to save on costs.

In addition, recognizing that the first few ingredients on the list make up the majority of the formula can help you to recognize if potentially harmful ingredients are being used in high concentrations. For example, brands will often use high concentrations of denatured alcohol to provide an instant degreasing and tightening effect. However, denatured alcohol is well known to cause skin dryness, irritation, and even disruption of the skin barrier, especially when used in high concentrations. Avoid products that have ingredients such as Alcohol Denat., SD alcohol 40, isopropyl alcohol, or ethanol within the first 10 ingredients. 

Understanding chemical names on a cosmetic label

Even when the ingredients on a cosmetic label are listed in English, chemical names can be intimidating. To make deciphering these chemical names a little easier, follow these tips:

  • Ingredients ending in -cone or -siloxane are silicones. (Example: dimethicone, polydimethylsiloxane). As a class, silicones improve the feel, appearance, and performance of cosmetic products. These ingredients act as silky moisturizers, conditioners, solvents, and delivery agents for other skin care ingredients.
  • Ingredients that start with PEG contain polyethylene glycol. (Example: PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil). These ingredients are produced through a process called ethoxylation, a chemical reaction in which ethylene oxide is added to a substrate (example: castor oil). The number following PEG indicates the number of units of ethylene oxide.
  • Ingredients that end in copolymer or crosspolymer are polymers. By definition, polymers are large molecules made up of chains or rings of linked monomer units (simple building blocks). In skin care, polymers typically function as film-forming agents, thickeners, and making products feel either “drier” or more moist, smoother, or more pleasant overall.

In order to make reading a cosmetic label even easier, we have an extensive skin care ingredients dictionary here at The Derm Review. The skin care ingredients dictionary tells you what the ingredient is, as well as the ingredient’s origin, function, and safety. Click here to access the skin care ingredients dictionary

References: “Summary of Cosmetics Labeling Requirements”, “Cosmetic Ingredient Names”, “Understanding the Label”

Recommended Articles