3. How to Read Cosmetic Ingredient Labels (Shop With Me!)

So you’re in one of your favorite stores buying non hair related products, when you happen to pass the hair product aisle and decide to take a look.  You’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks and want to assess your ‘Label Poise‘ so you pick up a standard rinse out conditioner.  For those of you coming to Nature’s Pulchritude for the first time, Label Poise is my way of teaching you how to walk the walk, talk the talk, and buy products that meet YOUR standards, whether natural, organic, or safe enough.

Look at the label below, would you buy this product?  Keep your answer in mind as you read the accompanying analysis.

Here are the tips I gave you in my prior posts (here and here) on how to read ingredient labels:

  1. Ingredients are listed by quantity in the formula, from greatest to least, based on standards by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  2. Ingredients are listed using the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients (INCI), therefore they are listed using scientific nomenclature, or    binomial nomenclature (latin; taxonomy) for ingredients derived from plants.
  3. How ingredients are derived is seldom listed on the label (the same chemical can be derived synthetically or naturally).
  4. Fragrances are generically listed because they are considered trade secrets; typically naturally derived fragrances do not use “Fragrance (Parfum)” but a specific naming system.
  5. If it looks like a “chemical” it probably is, if you don’t want chemicals don’t buy it!  **Everything is a chemical, I’m referring to ‘bad’ chemicals here.

The Label:


The Analysis:

Water (Aqua):  Safe!

Cetyl Alcohol:  Safe!  This is a fatty alcohol that is often used as an emollient and emulsifier in conditioners.  It is typically derived naturally from coconut or palm oil.

Ceteraryl Alcohol:  Safe!   Typically naturally derived from Coconut and Palm Oils (though it can be derived synthetically), it is a mixture of Cetyl and Stearyl fatty alcohols.  This ingredient acts as a thickener and moisturizer in personal care products.

Mineral Oil:  Beware!  This is a petrochemical typically derived from crude oil.  It can be found in high concentrations (one of the first 5 ingredients) in a variety of products.  Mineral Oil prevents moisture from entering or leaving the hair shaft.  This can often lead to hair breakage and clogged pores on the scalp.

Stearalkonium Chloride:  Beware!  This ingredient is an ammonium salt and is most commonly found in hair conditioners.  It acts as a conditioner, anti-static agent, and softener.  It was originally used by the fabric industry for use as a softener.  This ingredient can be an irritant at high concentrations, given that it is in the first 5 ingredients concentrations in this product may cause irritation of contact areas is left on for an extended amount of time.

PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil:  Beware!  You probably recognize “Castor Oil” but not “PEG-40” and “Hydrogenated?”  What does that mean?  Essentially the Castor Oil has been hydrogenated (treated with Hydrogen atoms) and PEG-40 indicates that it is a Polyethylene Glycol derivative which has been ethoxylated (ethylene oxide is added to Castor Oil), this can be done to increase water solubility.  This ingredient can be used as an emulsifier, surfactant, and fragrant.  This ingredient is typically not considered toxic, but may be contaminated with impurities such as carcinogens: ethylene oxide, 1,4-dioxane, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); known toxics lead and arsenic; and lead.

Cholesterol:  Safe!  Cholesterol is made up of lipids and sterols (steroid alcohol), which is essentially fat.  This ingredient is either plant or animal derived and is used to as a moisturizer in hair products, skin products, lipsticks and some sunscreens.  It functions as an emollient, stabilizer, and water binding agent.  It is not known to be a carcinogen, mutagen, or genotoxin.  If you are vegan Avoid! this ingredient unless you can verify it is plant based.

Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice Powder:  Safe!  This is the powdered form of aloe vera leaf juice.

Wheatgermamidopropyl Hydroxypropyl Dimonium Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein:  Avoid!  I could not find any information specific to this ingredient as listed.  Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein is a very common ingredient in hair conditioners and is not known to be toxic or carcinogenic.  I am assuming this is chemically different or dissimilarly derived than Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein.  Avoid! if you have a wheat allergy and follow a Gluten-Free lifestyle.

Simmondesia Chinesis (Jojoba) Seed Oil:  Safe!  This ‘oil’ is a liquid wax and has a moderate fatty acid content.

Retinyl Palmitate:  Beware!  This ingredient is an ester of Retinol (Vitamin A) and Palmitic Acid (a fatty acid that is a primary component of Palm Oil).  This ingredient is often used in skin products in high concentrations because it has been shown to increase collagen production.  Retinyl Palmitate is easily absorbed into the skin and is then converted into Retinol.  This ingredient was at the center of the sunscreen controversy in recent years as it is believed to form free radicals and create photomutagenic compounds after UVA and UVB exposure.  Concentrations in the product are likely too low to be effective, but be cautious if it is a concern.

Cholecalciferol:  Safe!  Also known as Vitamin D3.  Cholecalciferol is a secosteroid and is similar in structure to cholesterol and other steroids.  This form of Vitamin D is inactive and has not been hydroxylated (chemical addition of an -OH group).  This ingredient can be toxic in rats when ingested, but it is not known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, or genotoxic.  It should be fine for short term topical use on hair (via MSDS).

Tocopherol:  Safe!  Also known as Vitamin E, Tocopherol is a chemical alcohol with antioxidant properties.  This ingredient is not known to have carcinogenic or toxic effects (via MSDS).  It can also be used as a preservative for oils.

Disodium EDTA:  Beware!  EDTA is short for “Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid” and is used in cosmetics as a preservative, chelator (prevents metal ions in hard water from depositing on hair, skin, and scalp), stabilizer, and penetration enhancer.  Therefore if there are toxic or harmful chemicals in this product, this ingredient can allow for them to penetrate the skin and possibly be absorbed into the bloodstream.  This ingredient is used in a myriad of cosmetics and personal care products, and food (FDA Approved).  The ingredient itself is not considered toxic at the low concentrations in cosmetics, but its ability to act as a penetration enhancer for other chemicals is a concern.  This ingredient can also cause environmental problems as it is slow to degrade (lingers in the environment) abiotically (typically from sunlight) though it can be biotically degraded up to 80% by microorganisms in water treatment plants.

DMDM Hydantoin:  Avoid!  This ingredient is a used as a preservative and prevents (or slows) microbial growth in personal care products.  This ingredient works by releasing formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) to kill or prevent microorganisms.  In concentrations over 0.2% it is suspected to be a skin, eye, and lung irritant, and may cause contact dermatitis.

Methylparaben:  Beware!  This ingredient is synthetic and acts as a preservative with anti-fungal properties.  It is naturally occurring in fruits such as blueberries as p-hydroxybenzoic acid.  This ingredient is readily absorbed into skin and it along with other parabens have been at the center of controversy about its role in causing cancerous cells in breast tissue being that parabens are xenoestrogens (mimic estrogen).  There is not conclusive proof that demonstrates that use of personal care products containing parabens causes cancer.  Methylparaben is suspected to cause DNA damage and increased skin aging when it reacts to UVB rays.

Propylparaben:  Beware!  Propylparaben is used as an anti-fungal preservative, typically in concentrations less than 1%.  It is commonly synthetically produced though it is produced naturally in fruits as p-hydroxybenzoic acid.  It is readily absorbed into the skin and metabolized, and has been found in urine in limited tests.  This ingredient is readily absorbed into skin and it along with other parabens have been at the center of controversy about its role in causing cancerous cells in breast tissue being that parabens are xenoestrogens (mimic estrogen).  There is not conclusive proof that demonstrates that use of personal care products containing parabens causes cancer.

Fragrance:  Beware!  Fragrances are often synthetic.  Though they are low in concentration in the product, there is still a small chance of having an allergic reaction.

FD&C Yellow 5:  Beware!  This is a synthetic yellow dye (food coloring) also known as Tartrazine and Cl 19140.  Tartrazine is a known allergen and has various impacts on the immune system from dermal contact or ingestion.  It is not known to be toxic.’

FD&C Red 4:  Beware!  This is a synthetic red dye that is also known as CI 14700 and Scarlet GN.  It is not permitted as a food additive, only for topical or external uses.  It is not known to be an irritant, toxic, carcinogenic, or mutagenic (via MSDS).

Based on the ingredients I would not buy this product.  Mineral Oil Stearalkonium Chloride, and PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil are present in the first 5 ingredients, which is unfavorable.  This product also contains a formaldehyde releaser (DMDM Hydantoin) and 2 parabens, which further supports it staying on the shelf.  I’ve used products very similar to this one before and they work okay, I just do not like the coated feeling of mineral oil.  I would purchase a similar product without the aforementioned ingredients, which I have seen on the market.

How was you ‘Label Poise?’  Did you accurately assess the ingredients?  Would you purchase this product? 


6 thoughts on “3. How to Read Cosmetic Ingredient Labels (Shop With Me!)”

  1. Yikes! That’s a lot of scary unpronounceable words in there too! I know some of the horrible ingredients but I learned some new ones here! Thanks for the info!

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