Making sense of skincare ingredients and product labels

Greenwashing is way too common these days, with the goal of tricking us into believing that a product is better for us or for the environment or making you think a product is something that it’s not. The only way to really break through all the marketing hogwash is to understand how to decipher the ingredients on product labels. This blog is going to help you do just that… it’s a crash course in cosmetic label language.

We’ve already introduced you to all the nasty crap that manufacturers pop into their formulations, for a multitude of reasons. If you haven’t read that blog, please make sure you check it out here. The thing is, so much money goes into all those fancy-pants labels and packaging that it can be really hard to look past it. If it looks great it must be right! That’s what they want you to think.

First things first: Companies can use words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ on their label (there are no laws preventing this if it’s not true); there is very little transparency when it comes to cosmetic product labelling. Accomplished marketers can highlight the 'amazing' skin loving benefits of included ingredients that unfortunately are often found in such small quantities that they really aren’t going to do anything at all. Ah marketing…. it makes suckers of us all!

So don’t be sucked in by the marketing

On the previous note, one of the most important things is to sidestep all the marketing drivel on the packaging skilfully devised to suck us in. I mean sure, active ingredients are included for a reason, but not all the claims made are true, so beware.

The ingredients

Next is being able to breakdown the ingredients list – the INCI list. INCI (stands for International nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients) is simply the scientific system used to name cosmetic ingredients. When you start looking at these (sometimes lengthy) lists they do feel like another language and completely daunting but as you get more familiar with them, I promise you will start to feel a bit more comfortable about recognising different ingredients. A couple of tips here:

  1. Know how to spot the nastiest ingredients! The key skincare ingredients to avoid are listed in our previous blog, I run a mile when I see compounds like fragrance, sulphates, PEG compounds, phthalates, parabens and a few others on the label. Check out our previous blog about toxic chemicals in cosmetics here and simply pop the product back on the shelf if you spot and of these nasties. 

  2. Plant based ingredients tend to be easy to spot; they’re either listed as their common name (which sounds like a plant – in English i.e. Calendula flower or Burdock root) but might also be listed using their scientific name, which is almost always a 2 word Latin name like Eucalyptus radiata (Eucalyptus) or Centella asciatica (Gotu Kola).

  3. I have read quite a few blogs that state that if there are ingredients listed that you cannot pronounce then you should be wary; this is often the case but not ALWAYS true. There are plenty of natural/plant derived ingredients that do still have science-y sounding names. Again, the more you practice and get familiar with different ingredients, you quickly learn which are A OK. An example is Tocopherol, which is simply Vitamin E or panthenol, which is pro-vitamin B5. Others like cetearyl alcohol and sorbitan olivate are naturally derived molecules used to stabilise and emulsify ingredients. These more than likely contain palm but that’s for another blog!

  4. Understanding that the order in which the ingredients are listed indicates the relative amount of that ingredient in the product from the most abundant written first to the least abundant last. The bulk of the product is usually made of first 5 or 6 listed ingredients. Just a note here, when water is the first ingredient, you can assume that it is found at around 60-90% of the whole product, that can be some expensive water you’re buying! Another note, just because an ingredient is present in lower amounts, doesn't necessarily mean that it is not effective, for example, niacinamide is known to be effective at around 5%, hyaluronic acid at 0.5-1.5%. Ingredients present at less than 1% can be written in any order, generally found at the end but there may be lots of them.

  5. Allergens, usually components of essential oils or synthetic fragrances should be listed at the end of the ingredient list. It is worth becoming familiar with some of these, particularly if you have sensitivities. You can find the full list of allergens here. It is wise to also look out for the following common allergens: Some detergents (Sodium Lauryl & Laureth Sulphate, SLS and Cocamidopropyl betaine have been known to cause reactions), Fragrance/ Parfum (blanket term used for a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals that don’t have to be disclosed and could come from a pool of around 3000 different compounds), Preservatives (Phenoxyethanol, Benzyl alcohol and Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate have been shown to be allergens)

  6. Be wary of abbreviated lists. Some websites showcase the ‘key ingredients’ rather than the full list, which you have to search a little deeper for. By law, at the time of purchase, either in real life or online, the full ingredients list MUST be available to the consumer.

So how am I supposed to know what an INCI name means?

There are plenty of resources to turn to while you’re learning the ropes of what ingredients are, why they’re in the product and whether you need to steer clear of them. Finding your favourite skincare ingredients checker is key. Here’s a really useful list:

EWG Skin Deep:

This is my go to. It’s super simple to use, gives you a colour-coded grading and indicates what type of hazard the ingredient might be. It also tells you the function of the ingredient as well as synonyms that can be really useful. The best bit is if you geek out on the science like I do, it offers references for further investigation. You can search this skincare ingredient dictionary here 

INCI decoder:

Another useful searchable database. 

Think Dirty: 

This app allows you to type in a product name or scan barcodes and you get a rating for each of the product's ingredients clarifying if and why they are considered toxic. Note that some Aussie brands or small boutique brands might not be on their database. You can also search for individual ingredients. Unlimited access to all ingredients comes at a cost of $4.80/ month or $45/ year but you can try it out for 1 week free, 

INCI Beauty:

This app allows you to scan barcodes (handy if the product is on the database) or search for a product or an ingredient. It then breaks down all the ingredients, outlines whether they're good, not so good or satisfactory and gives an overall score. Premium features have a cost of 15 Euro per year.

Chemical Maze: Shopping companion:

A searchable and pretty easy-to-use app that includes ingredients found in both food and cosmetics. It does cost $11 but well worth it I think.

Breaking down an ingredients list

The way I’ve learnt how to read labels is by learning bit by bit and researching suspect ingredients as I find them. You will start to recognise and remember them and will find yourself much more confident when deciphering a label. Here is the ingredient list for Youth to the people Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream, which is a relatively clean product with just a few questionable ingredients included:


So, while daunting at first, I promise that the knowledge you will gain is well worth it. Learning what ingredients are and how you are choosing clean products, is the aim here and we know you are now armed with the tools to be better prepared. Feel free to drop us a line if you want some more information or have any questions at

Tammy X

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