How to Decode Cosmetic Labels

How to Decode Cosmetic Labels

Have you ever wished that someone would take the time to explain how to read the ingredient label on the back of your cosmetics? I get asked all the time, "Madi how do I know if I am buying a product that is good for me and or nontoxic?"

We’ve all been there. Roaming the aisles of Sephora, being spun around by pushy salesman and shiny packaging. Just as you’re checking out, you flip the unicorn incrusted singing lunar dust over and think “what the hell is actually in this stuff?”. Embarrassed that you don’t know all the hieroglyphics in the ingredient list, you buy it anyways. You think to yourself, I’m sure it’s fine, someone HAS to be regulating this stuff. Hate to break it to you, but wrong. Truth is, the FDA has very little control over what flows into the free cosmetic and skincare market.

To date, the EU has banned the use of 1,328 chemicals in cosmetics that have been known to be linked to cancer, birth defects, and genetic mutation. The United States FDA has banned a whopping 11 in comparison. EU law requires pre-market safety assessments of cosmetic products, while the US has no such safety net. The USA has a long way to come in regulating cosmetics, so until that time comes-it’s up to the consumer to be the regulators for their own product purchase decisions.

This isn’t meant to scare you! On the contrary, we’re here to help. At Olive + M, we believe in giving tools to our customers so that they can make better, more informed decisions when deciding between which unicorn lip cream to buy. (Okay, that’s the last unicorn joke I’ll make, but if you really want something that has serious unicornesque vibes, you should check out Olive + M’s natural shimmer body oil. From one pixie to another, you won’t be disappointed.) Alright, enough mythical creature talk, knowledge is power so let’s get started!

Part 1. The Ingredient List Basics

When brands list ingredients on cosmetic or personal care packaging they must be listed in a specific way that complies with the INCI system. INCI stands for the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. The INCI system is used in the USA, European Union, China, Japan, and many other countries. INCI names are the same in almost every country, making the system a universal language of sorts. This uniform system provides transparency to customers as ingredients are identified by a single labeling name, regardless of the national origin of the product.

Order matters.

Ingredients are listed in decreasing concentration levels. In other words, the first ingredient is present at the highest percentage and the rest of the ingredients follow in descending order. There are some caveats to this rule. If the product contains an active, this will be listed in a separate section titled “Drug Facts: active ingredients”. In this case, the percentage will be explicitly listed so there is no mystery there, which is a bonus for you!


Another complication to the rule I just stated is fragrance. You often see the term “perfume”, “fragrance” or sometimes aroma or flavor near the end of an ingredient list. Unless the company is super transparent, you don’t always know what falls under this term. The labeling act of 1970 doesn’t require ingredients within the term “fragrance” to be spelled out. This loophole was intended to protect fragrance trade secrets, but it’s also a disclosure gap for consumers. Since you can’t be certain what makes up fragrance in one brand versus another,  it’s something to keep in mind when you see those terms used in ingredients lists.


You may have noticed terms like “geraniol, citronellol, or linalool” near the end of an INCI list. These are common allergens. The reason that you see these listed on some packaging and not others has to do with where the product is sold. The EU specifies that there are 26 allergens that must be listed on the packaging, if they are present in a finished formula. Not surprisingly, the US does not have the same requirement. If you see these terms listed, don’t fret. It just means that the brand probably sells the same product in the EU. If anything, this is a bonus for you because it is added transparency.


Plant names are easy to spot because they are always listed with their Latin name followed by a common name in parenthesis. An example would be Citrus aurantium (Neroli) Oil. The common name is Neroli and the Latin name is Citrus aurantium. Some transparent brands (like Olive + M!) will list the common name in parenthesis for all ingredients, not just botanicals. However, most brands will reserve this for plant ingredients only.

The unpronounceable.

Many people believe that if they can’t pronounce an ingredient then it must be bad for you. The truth is, a complicated name does not mean that it’s a dangerous chemical. In fact, there are many natural ingredients that have complicated names but are safe to use and have an important function in the formula. Remember that the scientific names are a part of the INCI system, which is intended to make ingredient identification easier for you! 

You’re not alone!

Use these resources to investigate ingredients further. They offer definitions, descriptions on how they work and non-technical names of hundreds of skincare and makeup ingredients and the best part is that you can access them from your phone! No more stressing in the isles of Sephora.

EWG's Skin Deep

Cosmetics Info Resource

Chemical Maze App

Part 2: Symbols  

There are many symbols that you might see on a cosmetic label. Some of them you’ll recognize and some of them you won’t. Some symbols are official certifications or seals given by an external organization that means that a product meets a certain standard. Other symbols are created by the brand to give a certain appearance of quality or qualification. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the claims are false, but it does mean they are unregulated and not recognized by a specific accreditation board. Since these symbols are the wild west, I won’t go into very much detail. Instead, I’ll focus on identifying the symbols that you can count on without a doubt.


Certifications are given by organizations to products that meet a certain standard. This could mean anything from cruelty-free to organic. However, just because a product doesn’t have these official seals, doesn’t mean that they aren’t cruelty-free, organic or anything else for that matter. It just means that they didn’t go through the certification process. There are many reasons a brand might choose to forgo the process, but the big one is price. Depending on the certification, a brand might pay thousands of dollars to certify each product every year. This simply isn’t feasible for all brands. However, these organizations are doing great work in setting high standards that all brands respect and admire. Below are some examples of certifications that you might see on a cosmetic product and what they mean.


Expiration Date/PAO.

Period After Opening (POA): This symbol looks like a jar with the lid open. Inside the jar, there is a number, usually followed by ‘M’. The number refers to the amount of time the product is safe to use after opening. For example, if there is a ‘6M’ in the symbol, you should use the product within 6 months of opening. After the set POA, the product could become unstable or not as effective.

Best Before.

This symbol looks like an hourglass. There will also be a date on the packaging, which is the “best before” date. This symbol means that the product must be used before the date listed on the package, regardless of when it was first opened.


This symbol means that the packaging can be recycled. It looks like three arrows that make the shape of a triangle. Yay for saving Mother Earth!

Quantity of Product.

The unit of measurement that you see on packaging really depends on the product state. If the product is a solid (like eye shadow or powder) then it will be listed as grams. If the product is a liquid or cream, then it will most likely be listed in mL and fl oz. This should be listed on the front of the exterior packaging and on the product itself.

Batch numbers.

Alright, hold onto your seat’s everybody. Here’s another tricky one. It is required by law for a batch number to be on a product. The manufacturer that makes the product is responsible for keeping meticulous records of every single product that they produce. If a customer or brand comes across a problem with a product, they use the batch number to track down all of the details of the product to try to pinpoint the source of the issue. This is a great way to keep labs, brands, and retailers accountable. The batch number can vary in length and can include letters and numbers. The most common place to find the batch number is on the bottom of the product, but it could also be on exterior packaging too.

Now that you have this knowledge, it’s time to put it into practice. You can even start at home! Take a look at the products that you already have in your bathroom. Can you find the batch number? Are there any visible symbols that you recognize? How is the INCI list looking? Is the product expired? For your sake, I hope the answer is no to the last question! 

We just barely scratched the surface, but I hope you enjoyed this read. For more information, I encourage you to check out our Instagram. There will be a special video that will go over this information, provide examples, and elaborate on certain areas that might be a little too long to spell out. If you liked this content, want more content like this, or have any questions please drop us a message!



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