How well do you know your hand wash? Are you fluent in facial scrubs? Follow Fleur's tips to become a skincare label expert. Photo / Getty Images

Talking Dirty: The Insider's Guide To Decoding Skincare Labels

Clean Beauty Collective founder Fleur Insley tells Ashleigh Cometti what to look out for when shopping the shelves

Building a skincare regime is difficult enough without trying to make sense of all the scientific jargon printed on the back of each bottle in your bathroom cupboard.  

You may have a few red flagged ingredients you routinely avoid (parabens and phthalates we’re looking at you), but the fast-paced nature of the beauty industry makes it virtually impossible to keep abreast of the flurry of new ingredients being formulated into all manner of masks and moisturisers.  

It can be tricky to keep up, which is why we recruited Clean Beauty Collective founder Fleur Insley to shed some light on how to read and decode skincare labels.  

READ: What Does 'Clean Beauty' Really Mean? 

“60 per cent of what we put on our skin gets absorbed, which means the products we put onto our skin have a significant effect on our overall health and wellbeing,” Fleur says.  

“More and more ingredients found in traditional skincare and makeup are linked to health issues such as allergies, eczema, cancer, hormonal disruption and reproductive problems, so there is simply no excuse for turning a blind eye.”  

Below, Fleur schools us on the ingredients, words and phrases to have on our radar, along with tips on how to see through marketing trickery.  

Clean Beauty Collective founder Fleur Insley. Photo / Supplied

THE GOLDEN RULES OF LABEL READING 

  1. Forget the front cover  
    Don’t be sucked in by a product’s pretty packaging. “Its only role is to capture your attention, but you need to move past it very quickly or you fall into the trap of purchasing what is seen as “shelfie-worthy”,” Fleur says. “Some brands have mastered the art of enticing customers with front labels by showcasing an ingredient as a key item, but it only has a tiny portion that is ineffective for the purpose. An example is when the front reads: “With hyaluronic acid” but checking the back and finding only 0.1 per cent is contained.” This rule applies to products that have any type of claim printed on the front, including organic, natural or preservative-free. Flip the product over as the ingredients list may tell a very different story. 
     
  2. Know your INCI list 
    The way ingredients are structured and displayed on a product label is called the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients). “The INCI are listed from highest to lowest concentration,” Fleur says. “For example, if the first item is Aqua (water), then it’s the highest content. Take some time to go through the list and get comfortable with it. Remember as you go down the list so does the concentration.” If you spot any of your red flagged ingredients in the first five to 10 ingredients on the INCI, opt for another product.  
     
  3. Don’t be intimidated by scientific names  
    The INCI system states that ingredients must be listed by their scientific names and plants by their Latin names. At first glance, these words can sound scary but don’t be put off, Fleur says, as you could be missing on major results. “Many of these unfamiliar terms are safe, like tocopherol (vitamin E), caprylic glycerides (stable fatty acids derived from coconut) and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (vitamin C),” she explains. In saying that, Fleur warns that frequent offenders may crop up in multiple products such as sulphates, which can also be listed as sodium laureth sulphate, alkylbenzene sulphonate, sodium cocoyl sarcosinate.  
     
  4. Beware buzzwords  
    Take caution with products that use eco lingo, vague marketing language and the colour green, Fleur warns. “So many companies major a major deal of the claim that their product is vegan or natural. It doesn’t necessarily make their products safe, clean or even good for the environment,” she says. The overuse of the colour green and pictures of cute animals may be used as a nod to being environmentally friendly, which Fleur says can fool the average consumer. Other phrases to look out for include “eco-friendly”, “non-toxic”, “pure” and “save the earth”. Products that claim to be natural, sustainable and biodegradable should state how much of the product is naturally derived (usually in percentage form), how the ingredients are traceable if the product is said to be sustainable, and if said to be biodegradable, how long the product takes to disappear into the earth instead of just breaking down into smaller pieces.  
     
  5. Become an ingredient obsessive  
    Use apps and online tools to learn more about the ingredients listed in your favourite products. The Think Dirty App identifies potential toxins in household, personal care and beauty products, while the SkinDeep database on the EWG website (Ewg.org) allows you to search by ingredient, brand or product and issues a toxicity rating from 1 to 10. Failing that, Fleur recommends keeping a list of toxic ingredients saved to your phone for quick reference.  

The kind of ingredient transparency Fleur is demanding from the wider beauty industry, as spotted on the back of a tub of Garnier hair product. Photo /Supplied

INGREDIENT GLOSSARY  

First let us preface this list by saying this: the ingredients outlined below are not necessarily bad, but they are ones that can cause a bit of confusion when it comes to origin and processing.  

  • Palm oil and palm-derived ingredients are: “Safe, edible vegetable oils derived from the fruit of oil palms, but it is unfortunately harvested in an unsustainable and destructive manner and linked to major issues such as deforestation, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced,” Fleur explains.  
     
  • Lead and other heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, aluminium, zinc, chromium and iron, are commonly found in natural mineral pigments and synthetic colourants, but usually at trace levels. Fleur says: “At low levels they pose little risk to human health, however there are concerns about the build-up in our bodies over time.”  
     
  • Glycols including synthetic ingredients such as polypropylene, propylene and butylene glycol have humectant properties, meaning they attract and retain water in the skin and help keep products stable. “These ingredients do not appear to pose a safety risk for most people,” Fleur says.  
     
  • Lanolin is the wax or oil from sheep’s oil, with New Zealand lanolin being one of the cleanest sources of lanolin in the world.  
     
  • Silicones such as dimethicone are large, stable molecules said to improve skin texture and fill in wrinkles in skin, or porosity in hair. “Although they are unlikely to be a health concern for cosmetic users, there are still a few concerns to consider such as not biodegrading well, therefore potentially placing a negative impact on the environment,” Fleur says. “For those who have acne-prone skin, depending on the size of the ingredient and the skin’s sensitivity, users may find the silicones will clog pores.”  

READ: Clean Up Your Act: Consider These 7 Sustainable Beauty Swaps 

THE TAKEAWAY  

In an industry that’s largely unregulated on a global scale, Fleur says the best way to effect change in relation to ingredient transparency is to become a more educated consumer.  

“We as consumers need to take a stand and demand better ingredients in [our] products,” she says. “Collectively we have the power to pressure corporations and brands to create truly viable, post-disposable, sustainable and circular design solutions by changing our own habits and behaviours to support the more sustainable options. But we need to take ownership and educate ourselves first.”  

Locally, Fleur says she’d like to see brands openly share their ingredients list with their consumers, especially those which label themselves as “natural” or clean”, along with questioning beauty retailers on what frameworks they have for such defining terms.  

“If their terms don’t make sense, we need to call them out on it!” she says.  

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