How do you choose between the delicious lavender body lotion and the mango-vanilla skin salve? Or the cherry lip gloss and the peppermint lip balm?
For some, looking on the back of a bottle at the ingredients list can help the process. But for most, the ingredients list is a confusing myriad of hard-to-read, harder-to-pronounce words that don’t give us any real idea of what’s inside.
It was this confusion that motivated me to go back to school to learn the ins and outs of cosmetic chemistry. At the end of the day, despite the fact that translating an ingredients list is no easy feat, it’s imperative we get a handle on it, most of all when our health rides on the outcome.
When it comes to breaking down an ingredients list, I’ve learned it’s best to keep it simple. For starters, when it comes to where the ingredients in your beauty products are sourced, there are four key categories every ingredient falls into.
(To note, there are botanical versions of many animal derived ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid and stearic acid, so please consult with the product's company if you wish to learn more about its origin.)
- Minerals: Mica, Zinc Oxide, Clay, Iron Oxide Magnesium, Oligo Minerals
- Petroleum: Non-botanical oils
- Plants: Palm, Aloe, Periwinkle, Rosehip, Vitamin C
- Animals: Elastin, Collagen, Beeswax, Keratin, Silk, Royal Jelly
Next, it's important to know that every ingredient takes on certain traits, much like a person.
Each of these "traits" allows a product to perform in a certain way, either as an alcohol, acid, ester, or polymer, allowing the product to do a variety of things, such as foam, thicken, stabilize, emulsify, and preserve. It’s what makes your shampoo suds up and your face cream sit on your vanity for months without spoiling.
To identify a trait, look for the following:
- Alcohols: Known by an -ol or -yl ending
- Acids: Known by their -ic ending
- Esters: Known by their -yl or -ate endings
- Polymers: Known by their amino acid or protein name
Now that you have that down, let the translating begin! Depending on an ingredient’s source, you’ll find certain prefixes and suffixes that show you where the ingredient is derived.
Animal source identifiers are any ingredients with these endings or beginnings:
- Gly- (e.g., glycerine)
- Stear- (e.g., stearic acid)
The most common plant source identifiers are:
The most common mineral identifiers are:
- -cone (e.g., silicone)
Lastly, the most common petroleum identifiers are:
- Paragen PPG
- Mineral oil
So, next time you see STEARYL ALCOHOL or ASCORBIC ACID or PROPYLENE GLYCOL, you’ve got all the tools to know where it’s sourced from and what it’s meant to do. Before long, you’ll be able to break down each ingredient as you would a math problem.
Without proper FDA regulation helping us pick through the icky stuff in our products, it becomes our responsibility to find and use products that promote health and overall well-being. Until then, this is a good place to start!
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