Here are some simple rules for reading ingredient labels:
Rule 1: Read from top to bottom.
Companies generally list ingredients in order of quantity (greatest to least). The ingredients listed first will constitute the highest percentage in the product. If the first ingredients are petrochemicals and the natural ingredients are at the bottom of the list, you’ll probably want to leave the product on the shelf. Ingredients with concentrations lower than 1 percent may be listed in any order. Labels do not indicate where high-concentration ingredients end and where low-concentration ingredients begin.
Rule 2: The more ingredients listed, the more concerned you should be.
This is not always the case, but often it is. When I see that only three natural ingredients were used to make the product, I know it is clean.
Rule 3: Exercise caution with long names that are difficult to pronounce.
Safe cosmetics will list common names next to their scientific name. For example, aloe vera’s scientific name is Aloe barbadensis. Products with natural ingredients list both names.
Rule 4: Know that products may list “trade secret” as an ingredient.
This can be deceptive. A trade secret is a legal nondisclosure term allowing the manufacturer to protect any formula that gives the product a competitive advantage. Examples are lipstick colors and fragrance. Fragrance may contain hundreds of toxic chemicals that do not have to be disclosed, since under trade secret, the formula is proprietary. Naturally derived fragrances do not use fragrance (parfum or perfume) but a specific naming system. If you are trying to avoid certain chemicals, they may be present in trade secret products that are not being disclosed.
Rule 5: Understand that when ingredients share the same name there is no distinction between what is produced naturally or synthetically.
The same chemical can be derived synthetically or naturally. The way ingredients are derived is seldom listed on the label.
Excerpt from The Green Beauty Rules: The Essential Guide to Toxic-Free Beauty, Green Glamour, and Glowing Skin, HCI Books, copyright 2015.