Decoding Ingredients Labels in Hair & Skin Care Products, Consciously!

I was shopping the other day at one of the major retailers. As I was busy looking at what’s new in the personal care aisle, I couldn’t help but notice a damsel in distress confused about what shampoo to buy for her natural hair. I approached her and she said she was looking for a shampoo that didn’t include “ALCOHOLS” as she had sensitive scalp. I immediately knew I had to give a quick Cosmetics Chemistry Masterclass. That episode made me realize that information on understanding personal care ingredient labels is not as visible as I had thought, and there’s a lot of misleading information, BTW, about what is. I read an article the other day where the author said if you cannot read the label, then you must stay clear of that product. Meaning if the words on a product label don’t look like English, then one should not purchase that product. With such misinformed statements, GOODNESS, it is no wonder people are confused! Don’t fret though, although long, by the end of this article you’ll be well on your way to making your best cosmetics purchases.




Firstly, Cosmetics/personal care companies have to abide by the International
Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI)
, which is an internationally recognised system of identifying oils, pigments, chemicals, and other ingredients used in making personal care and cosmetic products.  Most brands carry the INCI name and the common name of ingredients in parentheses so that customers can understand the ingredient list and make educated choices.             

Secondly, Ingredients present in concentration greater than 1% are listed in descending order of weight or volume at the time they are added, followed by those in concentration of less than or equal to 1% in any order as required by the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules 1945.  This means that the first listed ingredient is the most concentrated one in the product. Labels are a good way to look beyond the marketing hype and deeper into the product contents.Now that that’s out of the way, we can go into the actual product formulation to better understand our products ingredient lists.

Most formulations include several key ingredient families: Humectants, Emollients, Occlusive Agent, Surfactants, and Preservatives. Without being too Science-y, let’s take a closer look into each ingredient family.


Emollients are ingredients that soften the skin and seal in moisture, creating a protective barrier on the surface of the skin shielding it from environmental harm. Common emollients used in skin care products are; Plant oils (Coconut, Jojoba, Sesame, Almond, etc), Shea Butter, Cocoa Butter, Beeswax, Fatty Acids (Stearic, Linoleic, Lauric, Oleic and Linoleic), Fatty Alcohols (Cetyl, Stearyl, and Cetearyl).

Do not confuse Fatty Alcohols with skin damaging and drying alcohols such as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol.


Occlusive agents are ingredients that increase the moisture levels in skin and form a film on the skin to prevent water loss. Common occlusive agents are Caprylic/Capric triglycerides, sunflower oil, soy bean oil, jojoba oil, evening primrose oil and olive oil.

Some occlusive agents have no nutrient value for the skin and can lead to dryness and chapping. These emollients are Petrochemicals such as Mineral Oil, Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Liquid Paraffin, Propylene, Ethylene, Butadiene, Benzene or Xylene and are made from crude oil and natural gas. We want to avoid products containing these ingredients.


Humectants are ingredients that have the ability to attract water from the atmosphere to the skin. Some are Film-Forming, which means water is lost slowly from the hair over the course of the day or between washes. Common film-forming humectants are Plant gels (Flaxseed, Aloe Vera, Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Panthenol) and Hydrolyzed Proteins (Keratin, Silk, Wheat, Amino Acids, Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed). Some are non-film-forming such as Glycerin, Sorbitol and Propylene glycol.


Comes from the word surface-active agent. They are used in cosmetics as foaming agents, cleansers, emulsifiers, conditionerS and solubilizers.  The most common used surfactants are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), the “SULFATES” you find in many products. They are produced using petrolatum. They may cause dryness, redness and itching. So we want to choose products that don’t contain these surfactants. Please do not confuse sulfates with Behetrimonium Metholsulfate (BTMS). BTMS is an antistatic agent and hair-conditioning agent that smooths out the cuticle making hair soft and easy to detangle.

There are many milder alternative vegetable derived surfactants used such as Cocamidopropylbetaine, Decyl Glucoside, Lauryl Glucoside, Sodium Laurel Sulphoacetate (SLSA). SLSA is not to be confused with SLS & SLES, as it is a much milder surfactant and it also conforms to Ecocert’s natural and organic cosmetics standard.


Also known as antimicrobials, are natural or synthetic ingredients that stop fungus, yeast, bacteria and other microbes from growing in your favourite personal care products, particularly products that contain water. There are five commonly used preservatives i.e. Parabens, Formaldehyde Releasers, Isothiazolinones, Phenoxyethanol and Organic Acids.

We want to stay clear of products containing Parabens & Formldehyde Releasers as they can be absorbed into our skin and they are said to be linked to rising incidences of breast, male breast and testicular cancers. Parabens are easy to spot on labels because they end with the word Paraben (ex: Proplyparaben, Isobutylparaben, butylparaben). Formaldehyde Releasers that are commonly used are DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane 1,3-diol), 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, Hydroxymethylglycinate.


Last but not least, all cosmetics and skin care products have an expiration date.  Some products carry the The “period-after-opening symbol' tells you how long your product is good for after opening. If the open jar has a 12M on it, know that it will expire 12 months after breaking the seal, popping the lid, etc.

Best practice is to store all cosmetics in a cool, dry and dark place. For those products that do not have a date or symbol, here is a list below with the usual expiration dates for cosmetic products that contain preservatives. When in doubt, toss anything that has changed in smell, color, or texture.

·       Aerosol products: Opened and unopened, two years.

·       Antibacterial products: Open or unopened, three years.

·       Antiperspirants: Opened or unopened, three years.

·       Deodorants: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.

·       Depilatory cream: Three years..

·       Eyeliners and pencils: Keeping them sharpened will help to keep them clean.

·       Face and body moisturisers: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.

·       Hairstyling products: Three to five years. Opened 6-months

·       Lipstick and gloss: Unopened, five years. Opened, 12 months.

·       Makeup foundation: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.

·       Mascara and liquid eyeliner (brush in vial): Unopened, three years. Opened, three months.

·       Nail polish: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.

·       Nail polish remover: Useable indefinitely.

·       Oils and serums: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.

·       Perfumes and aftershaves: Unopened, five years. Opened, 12 months.

·       Self-tanning lotions: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.

·       Shampoo, conditioner and shower gel: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.

·       Sunscreens: Unopened, three years. Opened, six months.


Right folks! This should be enough information to ensure your next purchase of shampoo, conditioner, facial moisturizer, etc. is more educated. All it takes is a little studying to be an informed consumer. Here’s to Conscious Shopping!

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