Personal Care
Labels 101: How to Read Personal Care Product Labels

Labels 101: How to Read Personal Care Product Labels

January 23, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

From toothpaste to shampoo, to shaving cream and make-up, personal care essentials are a ubiquitous part of life. The average American is said to use nine such products containing 126 different ingredients every day, usually without a second thought. Yet growing evidence shows we should all think at least twice about them.

More than 20 percent of personal care products contain chemicals that may contribute to cancer, and four out of five of their ingredients are typically contaminated with toxic byproducts. Some formulas contain compounds linked to reproductive dysfunction and endocrine disruption. Others rely on chemicals that can cause organ damageand harm fetal development. Even well known hazards like mercury and lead can appear, even if they are not identified directly on the label.

This is all the result of scant regulations that let personal care and cosmetic companies use nearly any ingredient and sell virtually any formula without safety testing or transparent ingredient labeling. Protecting ourselves –and especially our kids—from this lack of oversight starts with knowing how to read labels.

4 Easy Steps to Reading Personal Care Product Labels: 

  • Check the ingredients. Manufacturers must list what’s inside, though critical exceptions are made for things like trade secrets including fragrance formulas. The fewer ingredients you see and the more easily understood they are, the safer the product is likely to be.
  • Ingredients are listed on the label in the order of their concentration by weight. Choosing products with nontoxic ingredients listed first will minimize your exposure to unsafe substances. Not sure which are safe? Consult the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database of products and ingredients. Of course a completely nontoxic product is the ideal.
  • Avoid anything with the word “fragrance” on its label. A typical synthetic fragrance may be composed of hundreds of chemicals, many of which are highly toxic, yet manufacturers are only required to list the word “fragrance” on labels. Common fragrance hazards include neurotoxins, sensitizing allergens, hormone-disrupting phthalates, and synthetic musks. Want something scented? Look for natural and organic essential oils.
  • Ignore meaningless labeling terms like “natural,” “dermatologist-tested,” and “botanical.” They have no legal definition and can mean just about anything. Even “organic” can’t be trusted—it’s legally defined only for ingredients that are also foods, like olive oil. For non-food ingredients, the term is unregulated.

In general, try to stick to natural formulas and use as few personal care products as possible. And look for products that supplement the required and often technical standard ingredient names with plain English explanations. That’s really the best way to keep the whole family looking its best.

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