How To Read Beauty Product Labels

Understanding the claims made by beauty brands can be a minefield, but paying close attention to product labels can help you make an informed purchase.

Below you can read some tips on how to decode the labels on your favourite cosmetics.

We all want to know what we’re putting onto our skin, but understanding the claims made by beauty brands is a bit of a minefield and it can be truly challenging to ascertain the safety of a product and what it actually contains.

With clever branding and custom product labels, beauty products can look very different to each other on the surface. However, on closer inspection the labels often contain a lot of similar information, much of which is a legal requirement, and can be a great source of useful information if you’re trying to make an informed purchasing decision.

Understanding ingredient lists

The first thing you need to do is get to grips with the ingredient list. It may seem slightly baffling at first glance, but there are some steps you can take to help you make sense of it. Firstly, take a look at the order in which the ingredients appear – ingredients are listed in descending order, with ingredients with the highest concentration listed first, so this can give you a more accurate picture of the make-up of the product and help you to cut through any dubious marketing claims.

Secondly, you need to understand the list of ingredients itself. Beauty products use an international naming system for ingredients that is based on scientific nomenclature (known as INCI). This can be overwhelming and confusing to the non-scientific minded, but there are resources available, such as the Skin Deep website, which can help you to interpret and find out more about the ingredients listed on a particular product.

Last but certainly not least (particularly for those of us with sensitive skin), be sure to pay attention to the product’s allergens. These are listed at the end of the INCI list and can be constituents either of essential oils or of synthetic fragrances.

Misleading words and phrases

Brands are often guilty of using misleading words or phrases on their packaging in order to boost sales. For example, some companies use a ‘wonder ingredient’ to help sell their product (argan oil shampoo is a key example), but when you look at the label more closely the ingredient often forms less than 1% of the total product. Equally, many brands describe their product as ‘natural’, but given that the term can be legally used for products that also contain synthetics, the end product could be anything. Taking the time to read and understand a product’s label gives you a greater awareness of its content and protects you against misleading or questionable claims.

Certifications and symbols

This leads us nicely onto certifications and symbols. If a product claims to be organic, vegan or cruelty free it will often communicate this on the label through the use of a relevant symbol. This symbol can be from a recognised certification body such as the Soil Association or Vegan Society, but in some cases the symbol will have been created by the brand in order to give a certain impression. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the brand is lying but you may want to carry out a bit of detective work to make sure that their claims stack up.

Expiry dates

Many people may not realise it, but beauty products and cosmetics do actually have expiry dates. On a product label this can be displayed in one of two ways – as a ‘period after opening’ duration (PAO), represented by an open jar icon, or a ‘best before end’ date (BBE), which is represented by an hourglass. A PAO tells you what timeframe the product should be used within once opened, whereas a BBE gives you a marked date that the product must be used by (regardless of when it was opened. Products that are past their expiry date are not as effective, so it’s definitely an area of the label worth paying attention to.

With so much to take into account, beauty product labels can be confusing, but by reading the provided information carefully and not taking claims at face value, you can ensure that you get the product you’re expecting.


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Cecilia K


Celia, 23-year-old fashion, beauty and lifestyle blogger. For any inquiries