HomeLifeLearn how to work out what’s in your beauty products

Learn how to work out what’s in your beauty products

Beauty companies like to blind us with science.

Read the labels and it’s usually just a confusing bunch of words all tumbled together.  Brightening, buffers, peptides and acids – the more cynical could be forgiven for assuming the packaging is all meant to bewilder us into buying.

Once upon a time beauty labels could put anything they liked on the packaging and they often did. However, these days most countries have signed up to the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) guide which sets standards for the wording on beauty products and it’s harder for companies to slip stuff under the radar.

The INCI covers more than 16000 ingredients and is constantly being reviewed and modified where necessary to reflect name changes and ingredient developments.

But what if you could easily and simply decode some beauty packaging?

Read: Eight ways to make your beauty products last longer

Here’s our guide to getting started.

The first thing you should know is that according to INCI, very much like labelling on food products, everything on a beauty product label must be listed in order of quantity.

So the largest quantity of ingredient is listed first and the least, last.

It’s a good guide for gauging active ingredients, but don’t think that because the ingredient you are looking for isn’t at the top of the list the product is ripping you off.

Sometimes the ingredients are so effective only a small amount is needed. For example, you wouldn’t want to use straight retinol, you’d be a peeling, red-faced mess.

When you get down the bottom of the list of ingredients, if anything is 1 per cent or less, they can be listed in any order. Brands will often list the most exciting product as close to the top as possible.

Read: Best fashion and beauty tools for travelling

A great tool to work out what ingredients do is the INCI Decoder, which provides simple explanations of each ingredient for almost every beauty product on the market.

Honestly, it’s so comprehensive I could stop writing right here because it may be the one resource you need to sort everything out, however, INCI Decoder’s comprehensive database can be overwhelming, so there are still some simple rules to live by.

Always check the allergens or ingredients you don’t like. I know someone with a lavender allergy – yes, I’d never heard of such a thing either – and a surprising number of beauty products use it.

Don’t panic if you see the word ‘preservatives’. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many products make a point of using natural or botanic ingredients, which can easily go off. Some brands get around it by using sterile containers, but others use perfectly safe ingredients, albeit with scary sounding names. 

Read: Barbra Streisand’s fashion and beauty evolution

In fact, this is where INCI Decoder is fantastic. Type in ‘propanediol’ for instance.

Sounds like jet fuel right? Actually, according to INCI Decoder it’s a natural product produced sustainably from corn sugar.

The site describes the ingredient as “quite the multi-tasker” that can improve skin moisturisation and improve the “preservative efficacy” of a product. It is also found in antiperspirants, hair colour and eyeliners.

With a little education it’s easy to see behind the usual trope that all chemicals are bad.

Solvents also sounds like it should be bad for you, but water is a solvent for sugar as oil is a solvent for many cosmetics.

Other words to watch out for are surfactant and emulsifiers.

Surfactants break the surface tension, very much like when you pour detergent on oil. Sounds nasty, but they make sure moisture can be retained in a product without separating and help deliver ingredients to your skin.

Emulsifiers help mix things together and stabilise oil and water-based products, which is especially important for products like sunscreen that need an even coverage.

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Jan Fisher
Jan Fisherhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/JanFisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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