How to Read a Label? Standards, Labeling, Honesty & Deception on Product Labels

Water. That’s the one word you probably recognize on a beauty label. The rest of the ingredients in beauty and cosmetic products, including even the natural ones, have complicated names – scientific names that are long, unwieldy and barely decipherable in pronunciation or meaning. This can be a unsettling problem, especially as a pregnant woman or new mom who wants to be careful of the ingredients she uses on her skin.

The very complicated task of reading a label is a direct effect of the INCI’s (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) standards for cosmetic products worldwide, which specifies what and how certain information must be conveyed to the consumer through cosmetic labels. Although the wording can be challenging, INCI’s system provides a consistency that ultimately helps the consumer:

  1. Ingredients must be listed by weight, from the greatest to the least amount inside the bottle.
  2. Manufacturers’ ingredients must fit into 1 of 35 INCI categories, such as emulsifiers, deodorants, and preservatives, simplifying the consumer’s process of identifying and evaluating product and their ingredients.
  3. Labels must list the INCI (basically, universal) name for a product. For example, Vitamin E must be represented as Tocopherol.

Providing additional support to the consumer, the FDA also regulates cosmetic product labeling in the US via its thorough Cosmetic Labeling Manual. Their Labeling Claims site lets consumers pursue action against products that have been “misbranded,” or improperly labeled.

Important to note: These standards for labeling should not be confused with cosmetic product regulation. In spite of the many chemicals that appear in cosmetics, the FDA has limited regulations around the ingredients NOT pre-approve labeling before a product reaches consumers. The FDA does NOT strictly regulate the cosmetics industry in the way it regulates the drug industry.

This is one of the many reasons it is so important to know how to read your product labels.

Here are a few deceptive words on product labeling:

Fragrance: Manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients of fragrances, as this information is legally considered a trade secret (which companies are granted the right to protect). This is particularly dangerous, because fragrances abound with synthetic chemical compounds, such as allergens, phthalates, and neurotoxins. To guard against this, seek out brands like Nine Naturals that use only plant-based essential oils for fragrance and fully disclose the ingredients in those fragrances.

Natural: This is a marketing word – not a scientific label. The FDA requires only one natural ingredient to be present for an entire product to be labeled “natural.” This means that a company can include one natural ingredient amongst multiple harmful chemical ingredients and still call the product natural. How to protect yourself? Spend time studying ingredient listings on products.

USDA Certified Organic: Product labels that feature this term are manufactured by operators who comply with annual inspections, as well as random checks, to ensure their adherence to USDA’s organic standards; this includes, among many things, a three-year process to properly fortify the farmland. It’s also important to note that many farmers that do adhere to “organic” standards cannot afford the fee to apply the “organic” label to their products.

Here are a few permutations of the USDA’s “organic” label:

    1. 100 percent organic: Product must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients. Products may display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.
    2. Organic: Product must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form, also on the National List. Products may display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.
    3. Made with more organic ingredients: Products contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and product label can list up to three of the organic ingredients or “food” groups on the principal display panel. For example, body lotion made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients (excluding water and salt) and only organic herbs may be labeled either “body lotion made with organic lavender, rosemary, and chamomile,” or “body lotion made with organic herbs.” Products may not display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.

    Nine Naturals believes that intentionally vague labeling isn’t fair to consumers, nor is it a healthy or sustainable way of marketing and talking about our products. All of our products’ ingredients are 100% naturally derived and plant-based. Though we’d like the labeling to reflect this simple and important company standard, we are required to include the lengthy INCI name of each ingredient on our product packaging.

    Nine Naturals also provides an Ingredient Glossary, which clearly defines each ingredient we use and its beauty benefits to you so that you can understand exactly what goes into our products and onto your hair and body.

    What frustrates you about product labeling? How do you shop for cosmetics and beauty products while avoiding the ingredients you dislike?