As you become more conscious of the products you put on your body, you are bound to start to notice the ingredient lists of your products. This is where we can gain the best information about the safety and quality of the product we are interested in using. However, while it is so essential to read those labels, understanding and making sense of them is a whole other story, as it is not often easy to tell what ingredients are natural and which are synthetic, or which are safe and which are toxic.
As part of this article, I will provide you with a short tutorial to learn how to know the basics of personal care product ingredient labelling and be empowered to make the best choices for you.
A general rule of thumb for making sense of food ingredients goes like this: “if you cannot pronounce it and don’t know what it is, then you shouldn’t eat it”. Unfortunately this rule does not work well, if at all, for personal care ingredients, as many plant names on labels go by their biological names, which can be hard to pronounce since they are in Latin, and there are many ingredients, both natural and synthetic that we will not be familiar with. So we cannot depend on that rule, and unfortunately there isn’t one easy guideline that we can use for personal care products.
This means the onus is now on the consumer to educate themselves about the ingredients that are present in their personal care products. What is even more troubling is that many countries do not even have laws yet for mandatory ingredient labeling or proper testing. For example, did you know that up to 2006 it was voluntary for a company to state its ingredients on personal care products in Canada? On the other hand, the European Union has what is probably one of the best labeling laws on Earth. Not only have they labeled their products properly for years, but in 2004 they toughened their label laws to also include whether a product contained a known or suspected carcinogen.
So the good news is that positive change is happening and often being brought about by conscious consumers, like yourself, who care about their health and wellbeing, not to mention about the impacts so many of the toxic ingredients have on our Earth. Today, Canada, the United States and Europe fully have these laws in place. So now it is up to us to make sense of those ingredient labels.
If you would like to dive in and familiarize yourself with the detailed labelling laws of your country, you can look those up online for your specific country.
- If you live in Canada, here are Canada’s Cosmetic Labelling Guidelines.
- If you live in the United States, here are the FDA’s Cosmetic Labelling Guidelines.
Personal Care Ingredients Tutorial
How to recognize and understand plant ingredients on personal product labels
Plant ingredients come from natural, living specimens so we have to cover a bit of biology first. The Plant Kingdom is one of 6 Kingdoms of living species. Anything that is a living species is named according to the Binomial Nomenclature System. This system was first developed by a man named Carolus Linnaeus back in the 1700′s. The purpose of this system was to classify or group all living species on Earth.
Since then this system has been fully accepted and internationally recognized to this day. However, since it originates back to the 1700′s, when Latin was the main academic language, it is not very user friendly today, when Latin is pretty much obsolete. For this reason, the Latin species names that are used on personal care product labels are difficult for most people to recognize and understand today. Sometimes a manufacturer will use the common English name of the plant, but often they will not, as using the biological name ensures the ingredient can be recognized anywhere in the world. Therefore, it is very helpful to know and recognize this set of ingredients first, as you would hope that natural plant parts make up the most of your natural personal care products.
Here are some examples. On an ingredient list I may see any of the following, which all mean the same thing:
- Helianthus annuus
- Helianthus annuus (Sunflower oil)
- Sunflower oil (Helianthus annuus)
- Sunflower Oil
How this nomenclature system works
- Every living thing gets a biological name when it is classified.
- The name is composed of 2 words.
- The first word is always capitalized, the second word is not capitalized (if written properly).
- If typed the two words should be italicized or underlined, if hand written the two words should be underlined separately.
- The first word of the name indicates the genus the species belongs to.
- The second word of the name indicates the actual species name, however to refer to a species properly both words are used.
- Sometimes both words are fully written (i.e. Helianthus annuus) and other times the genus name may be shortened to the first letter, followed by a period, and then followed by the species name (i.e. H. annuus).
- The Latin words usually end in “us”, “es”, “os”, “as” and “is”, but some exceptions apply.
Let us put this into practice and work through some examples.
Personal Care Label Reading Practical Examples
Example 1: Examine the following partial ingredient list**
…Aloe Barbadensis Juice, Triethanolamine, Chamomile Flower Extract, Citrus Grandis Seed Oil…
The first ingredient — Aloe Barbadensis — has two words in the name and is some kind of a juice. Notice, that it was not written fully properly by the manufacturer of this product, as the second word should not have been capitalized. Either way, you can probably easily recognize the word “aloe” from the common plant name “Aloe vera”, with this ingredient name being one of its synonyms. So this would be a great natural ingredient to have, as it is the juice of the aloe vera plant.
The second ingredient — Triethanolamine — is a one word name. If it was a common plant name, we should be able to recognize it to some degree. If it was a plant name written based on the Latin system, we would always see those two words, either fully or abbreviated, as shared above. This leads us to conclude that this is not a natural plant ingredient, but some kind of chemical or synthetic ingredient. If you break this word down, you can get some more clues: tri — ethanol — amine. Perhaps you recognize some clues here: “tri”, meaning three, “ethanol”, a type of alcohol, and “amine”, resembling a term you may be familiar with “amino acid” (the building block of protein). However, aside from now knowing this to be a chemical ingredient, we don’t have any idea or clues as to whether it is safe or dangerous, and if so, to what degree.
The third ingredient — Chamomile Flower Extract — is a common name for the plant used and easy to understand as a natural ingredient.
The fourth ingredient — Citrus Grandis — contains two words, both with typical Latin endings, and even though that second word is not in lower case, knowing what you learned above, you can probably easily tell that this is a plant name. We then get even more clues, one is the word “citrus” and two, is the word “seed”. Both indicate that this is some type of plant and its parts. If you were to look this up, you would learn that it is actually the Latin name of grapefruit. So the ingredient is grapefruit seed oil.
Example 2: Examine the following partial ingredient list**
…CETYL ALCOHOL, THEOBROMA CACAO BUTTER, CARBOMER 940, GLYCERIN, DMDM HYDANTOIN, GREEN TEA EXTRACT, CUCUMIS SATIVUS, TOCOPHEROL ACETATE…
Did you notice that the manufacturer wrote everything using capitals, which makes it harder to detect the biological names of items?
The first ingredient — CETYL ALCOHOL — has two words in it, however based on the fact that the word alcohol is included you can dismiss it right away from being a plant based ingredient or a formal Latin plant name.
The second ingredient — THEOBROMA CACAO BUTTER — is made of two words and a third common English name. The middle word “cacao” and last word “butter” can give you a big clue as to what this ingredient is. Yes, Theobroma cacao is the Latin name for what we commonly call “coco” or “chocolate”, or more specifically the plant from which those substances are derived. Note that the Latin names don’t end in the common Latin endings as this is one of those exceptions. Either way this is a great plant ingredient to make up your natural personal care product.
The third ingredient — CARBOMER 940 — is made up of one word and a number, which gives you a quick clue that this is a chemical and not a plant ingredient. As it goes with such ingredients, unless we learn what they are, we have no way of knowing how safe or dangerous they may be.
The fourth ingredient — GLYCERIN — is one word and a common chemical many of us may already be familiar with. You can read the following linked article to learn more about glycerin and what it is, as it is a very common personal care product.
The fifth ingredient — DMDM HYDANTOIN — contains two words but the first is an acronym, and plant names do not go by acronyms. Perhaps by now you can also tell that it does not resemble the Latin format of plant names and quickly deduce that it is some kind of a synthetic chemical. As a practical tip, DMDM HYDANTOIN/#.WbllONOGORs) is one of those ingredients that we really want to avoid in our personal care products.
The sixth ingredient — GREEN TEA EXTRACT — is easily recognized and understood as a natural, plant ingredient.
The seventh ingredient — CUCUMIS SATIVUS — contains two words and both have typical Latin endings, so it is to recognize this one as a plant ingredient, which actually refers to a cucumber.
The eighth ingredient — TOCOPHEROL ACETATE — also contains two words but these do have the common Latin endings. They may be an exception, but as you examine them further notice the English sounding words used, which leads us to know that this is some kind of a synthetic chemical ingredient. Although this ingredient has a connection to vitamin E, the highly modified tocopherol acetate version has various safety concerns.
To conclude and summarize this tutorial, here are some final tips to pick the best, most natural and least harmful personal care products:
- Aim to pick products with ingredient lists that are as full as possible of pure plant ingredients.
- Look for products that contain the plant names closer to the top, not bottom, of the ingredient list, as this means that the product is made more of them. (Ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance, in their concentration by weight.)
- Avoid products that have only a few plant names mixed in with many chemical/synthetic names. Usually these products will make all sorts of claims on the front label that try to make the product sound nice and natural, when in reality it very much isn’t.
- Avoid products that have many plant names mixed in with chemical/synthetic names. Having some good ingredients does not justify having harmful ingredients.
- Be wary of products that have unreasonably long ingredient lists of plant names, they may be trying to “pad” their lists with anything and everything in tiny amounts, but in the end really give you little or no benefit from those plant ingredients.
- Finally, if in doubt, do a quick search for the ingredient word(s) in question. Yes, this will add a few minutes to your shopping trip, but is very easy to do today with our wide-spread use of smartphones and Internet availability, and in the end ensures you make the best choices possible for your health and wellbeing.
Here are some resources that can make your life easier and quickly tell you about the safety or toxicity of the personal care product or company you may be interested in:
Made Safe — Certifies products made with safe ingredients.
EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database — Database of products and ingredients.
Think Dirty App — A mobile app to help consumers choose the safest products.
Safe Cosmetics — Campaign for safe cosmetics.
Canada’s Environmental Defence Beautiful Pledge — A directory of manufacturers that have taken the pledge and do not contain the toxic ten ingredients.