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What’s Really in Your Products? | How to Read Product Labels

Do you know what’s really in your grooming products? How to read product labels and understand ingredients

Why is it Important to Read Product Labels?

Even when you try to be careful about what types of grooming products you use, it’s hard to know what you’re actually buying. Something may look natural from the packaging, but actually be filled with harsh synthetic chemicals. It’s difficult to know how to read product labels and even if you do give it a try, they can be confusing and intimidating. 

So to help you stay informed, in this post we help you learn how to read product labels and decode ingredient lists so that you can make better, more informed choices about the grooming products you use. With some basic knowledge you’ll be able to understand what’s in your products in no time (no chemistry degree needed). 

How is the Ingredient List Organized?

First of all, it’s helpful to know that there are regulations about how ingredients lists are put together. Don’t worry, we’ll explain the method to the madness.

 

The first step in learning how to read product labels is understanding how they’re organized and why. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the personal care industry and determines these requirements. They separate personal care products into two main categories: cosmetics and drugs.

These categories have slightly different labeling requirements. 

What are the Labeling Requirements for Products?

For products that fall into the cosmetics category, the ingredient list is several lines of text on the back of a product package, ordered by weight. For example, if water is the first ingredient in a list, then it means that water is the highest percentage ingredient making up that formula. Then the ingredient after water is the second most used ingredient, and so on.  

A caveat to this rule is that ingredients making up below 1% of a product formula can be listed in any order. This is why preservatives or colorants are often listed last, or close to last, since they’re used at very low concentrations.

Are Drug Facts Labeling Requirements Different?

If a product is making a specific drug claim with an FDA approved active drug ingredient, then it’s considered an over-the-counter drug and the label needs to follow even more specific FDA labeling requirements. 

Here are a few key callouts about Drug Facts label requirements: 

  • Active ingredient: this is the ingredient that makes the product an over-the-counter drug.
  • Uses and warnings: The “active ingredient” determines the uses and warnings – this part of the label is identical for all products using the specific active ingredient.
  • Inactive ingredients: These ingredients are everything else that’s included in the product. These are organized by concentration in the formula, just like the ingredients order on cosmetic labels. 
FDA drug label
Example label from the FDA

How to Understand Ingredients on a Label

There are so many different ingredients with confusing names out there which makes reading the ingredients on a label overwhelming (even if you happen to be armed with some chemistry knowledge). The good news is that we’re here to help you learn how to understand ingredients, without having to memorize every chemical compound in existence.

 

You’re in luck, cause we have some tips to help you learn how to decode the label. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Common prefixes and suffixes that are found in ingredient names, which can give you clues as to what an ingredient really is.
  • Learn to categorize ingredients based on their key attributes, which will help you to make sense of where an ingredient comes from, and why it’s included in a formula. 
  • Explained with real-world examples of ingredients in Dr. Squatch products.

Each ingredient can be classified by three main attributes: source, class and function. 

1. Source: Where Ingredients Come From

Ingredients can be derived from a variety of sources. Learning the different sources and common naming conventions can help you start to understand where an ingredient came from and if it’s something you actually want to use on your skin. 

Natural Sources

If you generally try to use natural products on your skin and want to avoid products with harsh synthetic chemicals (you all should!), you should look for products with ingredients from plant, animal and minimally processed mineral sources. Here’s how you can identify them:

Plant Sources

Ingredients sourced from plants include oils and extracts such as olive oil, coconut oil, aloe vera. 

olive branch

Common naming conventions: ascorb-, -gly*, -lac, laur-, -lipids, myrist-, -ole-, phyto, sorb-, tocopher-

Animal Sources

Examples of common animal sources include beeswax, royal jelly, honey, silk, collagen, carmine, elastin, keratin and tallow

eucalyptus greek yogurt soap dr squatch
Common naming conventions: -amide, -amine, -gly*, -lac, lan-, stear-, -sterol

*In some cases, prefixes can be shared between multiple sources. For example, the prefix gly- can indicate both animal or plant derived ingredients (such as glycerin).

Mineral Sources

Mineral sources include kaolin, clay, copper, mica, iron oxide, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, salt, pumice.

Common naming conventions: aluminum, cone, dime, fluoro, magnesium, sil, sodium, sulf, urea
 

Synthetic Sources to Avoid

Synthetic chemicals typically have sources that require more processing and may come from sources such as petroleum, bio-synthesis and fermentation. 

Petroleum

Examples of petroleum sources include carbomer, mineral oil, parabens, petrolatum and vinyl. If you see any of these, you should run for the hills.

Common naming conventions: acetate-, -ene, -eth, isopropyl, PEGs (polyethylene glycol)

 

2. Class : Traits of Ingredients Based on Chemical Family

Many different classifications of chemicals are used as ingredients in personal care and grooming products. Ingredients within the same class may have different functions, so to understand how a formula works, you need to look at both the class and function (which we’ll cover next). 

The three common classes of chemicals are acids, polymers, and alcohols.

Acids

Acids are chemicals with a pH below 7.0. They are added to formulas for a variety of functions ranging from adjusting the pH to the acne-treating properties of salicylic acid.

  • Naturally occurring examples: citric acid, glycolic acid, stearic acid, hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid

 

Common naming convention: -ic acid

oranges citric acid

Polymers

Polymers are large molecules formed by many repeating structural units. Some occur naturally, but most are synthetically produced. Polymer groups include gums, proteins, polysaccharides, and silicones.

corn field ingredient source
  • Natural examples: xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan, cellulose and cornstarch. 
 
  • Synthetic examples to avoid: carbomers or silicones like cyclopentasiloxane.   

Alcohols

Alcohols are chemicals that have a hydrogen and an oxygen molecule attached to a carbon molecule. You may vaguely remember learning this in school. It’s referred to as an hydroxyl group, written as -OH.

  • Natural examples: menthol, stearyl alcohol
 
  • Cooling menthol, which can be sourced naturally from peppermint oil, is an example of a natural alcohol that’s used in Dr. Squatch conditioner. 
peppermint leaves
  • Other examples (can be either natural or synthetic, depending on source): tocopherol, propylene, glycol, ethanol

 

Common naming conventions: -ol, -yl

3. Function: The Role an Ingredient Plays in the Formula

Understanding the function of a material helps you understand why it’s in the product. Typical functions include: surfactants, stabilizers, and preservatives.

Surfactants

The name “surfactant” comes from the phrase “surface active agent.” Simply put, these are the ingredients that clean you. Surfactant molecules have a hydrophilic (water-loving) head and a hydrophobic (oil-loving) tail. The oil-loving tail attracts oil and dirt and the water-loving head allows dirt, oil and germs to be washed away. 

Every soap, body wash or detergent formula uses surfactants, but you should seek out real soap made with natural surfactants, instead of the harsh synthetic surfactants used in traditional body washes. 

  • Natural examples: cocamidopropyl betaine, coco glucoside, decyl glucoside
coconut oil natural surfactant dr squatch soap

 

You may also see these written as: sodium cocoate, sodium olivate, and sodium palmate.

  • Synthetic examples to avoid: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate

Stabilizers

Stabilizers are often used to thicken formulas. Gums are a very common form of stabilizer used in various types of products. 

  • Natural examples: xanthan gum, guar gum, magnesium aluminum silicate

We talked before about xanthan gum as an example of a natural polymer. But now, we’re discussing the function of that ingredient.

Xanthan Gum is a plant-based thickener that is used in Dr. Squatch natural shampoo and conditioner. It’s also frequently found in natural food products! 

dr squatch shampoo and conditioner lifestyle
  • Synthetic examples to avoid: carbomer, acrylates copolymer

Preservatives

Preservatives are used to ensure product stability and make a product last longer. They prevent oxidation and bacteria from contaminating a formula.

  • Naturally occurring examples: sorbic acid, potassium sorbate, benzyl alcohol*
man washing hair

To limit the use of preservatives in our products, we create water-free formulas like our soaps, beard oils, and colognes. 

In cases where preservation is required, like in our hair care products, we choose food grade or naturally-derived options like citric acid, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate.

*These are examples of naturally-occurring preservatives, but they can also be manufactured synthetically. 

  • Synthetic examples to avoid: methylparaben, chlorphenesin, phenoxyethanol, methylisothiazolinone
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About the Author

About the author

Alexandra Blackstone, Product Development Manager @ Dr. Squatch

Alex Blackstone is a scientist and product development expert with 10 years of experience working on major brands including Neutrogena, Aveeno, Clean & Clear, and Burt’s Bees. She has a master’s degree from Dartmouth College and a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia. She joined the Dr. Squatch team earlier this year.

Tags: , , , , , , Last modified: June 12, 2020
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