“How to read the composition of cosmetics on the label correctly?”

“I often hear advice to carefully read the labels on cosmetics, but I don’t understand anything about it: what is good and what is bad. I read several articles on this topic, but everything was too complicated and very deep there. Perhaps there is some brief but comprehensive guide?”

Marieclaire reader, 40

Specialist’s response:

What is the first thing you need to pay attention to when choosing cosmetics in the store? On the brand? Manufacturer’s country? Packaging design? No. The main reference point is the list of components. 

  • Cosmetics should be suitable for the type and condition of the skin in terms of composition. Even if the skin type is already written on the label, it is far from a fact that the product actually suits this type. There are cases when the labels on the packaging do not correspond to the real composition of cosmetics.

  • The list of components is indicated in accordance with the international nomenclature of cosmetics INCI. The composition is written in English and Latin.

  • It is important to pay special attention to the first third of the list. Components in concentrations of more than 1% are indicated in descending order: the closer the ingredient is to the top of the list, the greater its content. Components in concentrations of less than 1% are arranged in random order at the end of the list. 

  • It is not necessary to assume that all useful components must necessarily be indicated at the beginning. For example, retinol, peptides, amino acids, sodium hyaluronate work in low concentrations. In addition, the composition of the products includes not only active ingredients like snail mucin or hyaluronic acid: basic substances that make cosmetics are necessarily added to the products, which make cosmetics cosmetics, and not the usual set of extracts, oils, etc. 

About the basic components

No cosmetic product can be created without a base. You can’t just mix several plant extracts and get a cream — for this you still need to add emulsifiers, emollients, preservatives, etc. The base substances determine the type of cosmetics, its texture and other important features of the product. 


Purified water is the basis of most cosmetics, its concentration reaches 97% of the total composition. It dissolves other components, partially affects the consistency, helps the skin to absorb useful substances. As a rule, water is in the first place in the list of ingredients (but sometimes the active component may dominate — for example, plant extract or sodium hyaluronate). For its designation, the words Aqua, Water, Purified Water are used. 


Preservatives protect the product from rapid spoilage: they either slow down the reproduction of microorganisms in cosmetics, or completely destroy them. Without these components, the product will last no more than 2-3 days. The most popular substances:

  • Parabens (Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Butylparaben);

  • Bronopol (2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-diol);

  • Phenoxyethanol;

  • Ethylhexylglycerin;

  • Chlorphenesin;

  • Methylisothiazolinone;

  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone;

  • Diazolidinyl Urea;

  • Imidazolidinyl Urea;

  • DMDM Hydantoin;

  • Alcohol.


Surfactants help to cleanse the skin, so they are always added to shampoos, shower gels and cleansers. They also improve the permeability of the skin and the penetration of useful ingredients, contribute to a faster effect, have a degreasing, conditioning and bactericidal effect. In cosmetics, surfactants are most often represented by sodium lauryl and laret sulfate. 


Emollients allow you to soften the skin, remove peeling and maintain elasticity. These include vegetable oils, animal fats, mineral oil, petroleum jelly, lanolin, fatty alcohols (including glycerin), fatty acids, ceramides, cholesterol, synthetic and natural waxes, silicones, esters. On the label they can be indicated, for example, as Isoamyl Laurate, Cyclopentasiloxane, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Cocoglycerides, Isopropyl Palmitate, Oleyl Erucate, etc.


With the help of emulsifiers, the aqueous and oil phases are combined in the cosmetic product. Surfactants can also act as such substances. Examples: Polyglyceryl-3 Cetyl Etherolate/Succinate, Cetearyl Alcohol(and)Polysorbate 60 (Polawax), Polysorbate 80, Glyceryl Stearate SE, Sorbitan Stearate, etc. 


There is no need to be afraid of perfumes — they do not harm health, but only give cosmetics a pleasant aroma and mask the smell of raw materials. In addition, their concentration should be small — from 0.01 to 0.3%. They are usually listed at the end of the list.

Often, multicomponent mixtures (Parfum, Fragrance, Aroma) act as fragrances. But sometimes monocomponents of essential oils or the oils themselves are used. Among them there are allergens: for example, Amyl Cinnamon, Benzyl Benzoate, Citronellol, Limonene, Citral, etc. Cosmetics with such components are recommended to be avoided by people with a tendency to allergies and sensitive skin. 


Dyes give cosmetics a certain color. They do not cause harm, but they also do not benefit. As part of them, they are usually indicated using the abbreviation CI (Color Index). For example, CI 42090 is blue. In some tone products (foundation creams, powders, concealers), you can find combinations of natural minerals — iron oxides (black, yellow, red) and white titanium dioxide.

Cosmetologist, founder of a chain of professional cosmetics and cosmeceuticals stores, founder of the cosmetics brand “El for u”, author of the book “Obsessed with composition”, consultant on the selection of home care.

Original content from the site