How to Read Cosmetic Ingredient Labels XIX

You are browsing the aisles in your local drugstore when a new brand and product catches your eye.  You are new to Label Poise and have yet to discover our Ingredients resources prior to making your purchase.  The product has nice packaging, organic ingredients, and is manufactured by a brand that is known in the natural product world so you decide to purchase the product.  Did you make the right decision?  Remember, I am teaching you Label Poise–how to walk the walk, talk the talk, and buy products that meet YOUR standards, whether natural, organic, or safe enough.

Here are 5 tips 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



Water:  Safe!  Water is the ultimate moisturizer and is a key ingredient in any moisturizing product.

Cetearyl 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.  In pure form,  this ingredient can be a slight skin irritant and permeator, and is toxic to mucous membranes.  The is no data available on human toxicity, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, developmental toxicity, and teratogenicity.  (MSDS)

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.

Ceteareth-20:  Beware!  A derivative of Cetearyl Alcohol (Cetyl and Stearyl Alcohol) and Ethylene Oxide (a known carcinogen), this ingredient is used as an emulsifier and emollient.  Ceteareth-20 is a penetration enhancer that can allow other (potentially) hazardous substances to enter your system.  This ingredient may also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen, as well as Ethylene Oxide.  Carcinogen contamination depends largely on how well purified the chemical is.  Products with this ingredient should not be applied to damaged skin as it may result in kidney damage.  In pure form it can be a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant, however there is no information on carcinogenicity, teratogenicity, mutagenicity, or developmental toxicity.  (MSDS; MSDS)

Glycerin:  Safe!  Glycerin is a humectant that attracts moisture in the skin. Glycerine can be derived from fats and oils, or synthetically–which is not indicated here.  (MSDS)

Phenoxyethanol:  Beware!/Avoid!  This is a preservative.  You will notice it is very high on the list of ingredients.    It is used because it is safer than formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, though the FDA released a warning about how it can impact the central nervous system and induce vomiting in infants.  It is also suspected to be a xenoestrogen (mimics estrogen), a cause of contact dermatitis and skin irritant.  In pure form phenoxyethanol is toxic to kidneys, the nervous system, and liver; it is an extremely hazardous eye irritant and a very hazardous eye irritant, though information on carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, teratogenicity, and developmental toxicity are not available.  It is banned in the EU and Japan in concentrations over 1%.  Therefore, one would assume it is either greater than the EU concentration restraint or it is in accordance, and the remaining ingredients in this product are at very low concentrations.  This ingredient is made from 2 carcinogens (benzene and ethylene oxide), though it itself is not known to be carcinogenic.  People around small children should ‘Avoid!‘ this ingredient, others should ‘Beware!‘. (MSDS)

Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil:  Safe!  Sunflower Oil is comprised of triglycerides (esters of glycerol and fatty acids) and has high Vitamin E content. It primarily acts as an emollient and assists the skin in retaining moisture.

Hibiscus Sabdariffa Flower*:  Safe!  Also known as Roselle, this extract is used for its antioxidant properties.  It is also believed to stop degradation of the skins elastin and is beneficial in products made for skin tone, anti-cellulite and refirming.  It is typically used in concentrations of 0.1-4%.  It is not known as a skin or eye irritant. There is no available information on carcinogenicity. (MSDS)

Mentha Piperite (Peppermint) Leaf Extract*:  Safe!  Peppermint leaf extract is made by extracting the essential oils of the leaves using alcohol distillation. It creates a cooling and soothing effect on the skin and scalp due to its high menthol content. It can be a skin and eye irritant in pure form, though it is not known to be toxic. (MSDS)

Salvis Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract*:  Safe!  This ingredient is used as a skin conditioning agent, skin protectant, and antioxidant.  It is generally regarded as safe and is not known to be toxic. (MSDS; MSDS)

Thymus Vulgaris (Thyme) Leaf Extract*:  Safe!  Thyme leaf extract is used for its soothing properties and can be used in concentrations of 5-10% of the formulation. This ingredient may be a skin, eye, and lung irritant, but is otherwise not known to be toxic. (MSDS; MSDS)

Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Leaf Extract*:  Safe!  This ingredient is used for its conditioning and astringent properties.  Depending on the concentration Avoid! if you have high blood pressure as it is believed to increase circulation. (MSDS)

Glycerin:  Safe!  Glycerin is a humectant that attracts moisture in the skin. Glycerine can be derived from fats and oils, or synthetically–which is not indicated here.  (MSDS)

Behentrimonium Methosulfate:  Beware!  This ingredient is a surfactant, detangling agent, anti-static agent, and hair thickener.  It is commonly derived from colza or rapeseed oil.  This product is typically combined with Cetearyl alcohol, also in this product, as a 75%/25% mix with BTMS being the lower component.  No individual MSDS found.  I have used this ingredient in a product before and had no ill effects, but it is listed as beware being that there is very limited information on it.  (MSDS [Cetearyl Alcohol & Behentrimonium Methosulfate])

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. (MSDS)

Potassium Sorbate:  Safe!/Beware!  This ingredient is the potassium salt of sorbic acid, which is likely synthetically derived though it is naturally occurring in some berry species.  It is widely used as a preservative in food, wine, and personal care products.  It is known to be a skin, eye, and lung irritant in pure form, though it is not generally considered to be a carcinogen, mutagen or teratogen in humans, however, additional research suggests that is is mutagenic and genotoxic in human blood cells (in vitro).  It is typically not used in concentrations above 0.2%, so it should be fine in this product.  (MSDS)

Citric Acid:  Safe!  This ingredient is naturally occurring in citrus fruits, but is typically produced by feeding sucrose or glucose to mold and additional chemical treatment.  It is used in cosmetics as a pH adjuster.  It is generally considered safe, though it is a skin and eye irritant in pure form. (MSDS)

Alcohol Denatured:  Beware!   Alcohol denatured is ethyl alcohol (ethanol) that has been rendered undrinkable by adding a denaturing agent. The denaturing agent here is not listed but can vary from relatively harmless essential oils or a toxic chemical.  Alcohol denatured is used as an antifoaming agent, astringent, antimicrobial agent, viscosity controller, solvent, and masking agent.  Ethyl alcohol is itself toxic to the body, causing skin and eye irritation, and skin permeation. Not classified as a carcinogen by ACGIH, though it is considered a proven carcinogen in the state of California. Ethanol (200 proof) is known to be mutagenic to mammalian somatic cells, and is toxic to blood, liver, reproductive system, skin, central nervous system, and upper respiratory tract.  Ethanol is also known to be teratogenic. Toxicity can increase depending on denaturing agent. (MSDS)

* Indicates Certified Organic Ingredient


Would you purchase this product?


Nature’s Pulchritude’s Verdict:  This product has nice eye catching packaging and touts several organic ingredients.  The third ingredient in this product is fragrance, which leads me to truly question how moisturizing this product really is.  This product also contains phenoxyethanol, a preservative, as well as potassium sorbate and citric acid, two more ‘natural’ and less toxic preservatives.  It is unclear why this was done.  You may have also noticed that glycerin is listed twice–that is not a typo.  I cross referenced the ingredients in the bottle with the company’s website and they are the same.  The only explanation I can think of is that two different types of glycerin were used (vegetable and animal based), the ingredients are not listed according to INCI standards or it is a mixture of two or more conditioner bases and the company did not reorder the ingredients.  It should also be pointed out that this product is made by a company that is a subsidiary of a very well known “natural” product company, and they use the same questionable ingredients.  This product touts that is does not contain “parabens, pthalates, or petrochemicals,” which is commendable however the product is not exemplary ingredients wise.  I would not purchase this product, primarily because of how high fragrance is listed.


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