Home Health Understanding skincare labels: the good, the bad, and the Latin

Understanding skincare labels: the good, the bad, and the Latin


If you’re concerned about your health, you probably read the label when buying groceries. It’s a great way to find out how much fat, salt, and sugar are in a product you’re putting in your body.

But often people buy cosmetics and skincare products based on what the pretty labels promise, not what the products actually contain. It’s understandable — many labels feature a dozen ingredients or more, and you probably don’t recognise half the words! But understanding skincare labels is important because your skin is absorbent and those ingredients could end up in your bloodstream.

So, here’s a handy 5-step guide to deciphering the ingredients list on skincare products so you can make healthy choices:

Step 1: Check concentration levels

Ingredients on skincare labels are listed in descending order of concentration. So, ingredients at the top are present in high concentrations, while those at the bottom might barely be present. To be listed at all, an ingredient must make up 2% or more of the product.

This is important to know because the part of the label that is marketing a product to you may conflict with its ingredients. If you’re thinking of buying a moisturiser because the label has pictures of macadamias on it, check the label. If macadamia oil is near the bottom of the list, there may only be a very small amount present.

Instead, you want to see the most potent ingredients at the top of the list!

Look our for toxic preservatives

Almost all skincare products contain water, so some kind of preservative is needed to prevent bacterial contamination.

One of the most common preservatives used is paraben. This is an estrogen-mimicking chemical that has been linked to increased breast cancer risk and potential reproductive problems for men. Keep an eye out for methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben — if you see those on the ingredients list, don’t buy.

It’s entirely possible to preserve skincare products without parabens. Natural skincare companies like Okana use weak acids to slow bacterial growth. Sometimes these preservatives don’t even need to be added because they occur naturally in other ingredients. For example, one of the preservatives in Okana’s Apple Juice Foaming Cleanser is an amino acid derived from apples.

Step 3: Learn a little Latin

There may be words on the ingredients list you don’t recognise. If they look like they could be spells from Harry Potter, they are probably Latin words. Generally, these are the scientific names for botanical ingredients. For example, hamamelis virginiana is American witch hazel and aloe barbedensis is a naturally growing aloe plant used make aloe vera.

Generally, natural ingredients like these are good but if you’re unsure your might want to check online For example, borago officinalis or star-flower can be used to treat a range of skin conditions but can also have harmful side effects for some people.

Step 4: Check chemical names

It’s easy to feel cautious when you see chemical names on an ingredients list, but don’t assume the worst straight away. After all, the scary-sounding dihydrogen monoxide is simply water, while sodium anisate is completely natural chemical obtained from anise and fennel.

But there are plenty of chemical names you should avoid. You can always look up ingredients on your phone if you’re unsure but a few key chemicals to look out for are:

  • Polyethylene glycol
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Aminophenol
  • Diaminobenzene
  • Phenylenediamine
  • Triclosan
  • Triclocarban
  • Petroleum distillates
  • Dibutyl phthalate
  • Toluene
  • Hydroquinone
  • Formaldehyde

Step 5: Avoid added fragrances

We all like nice smells, but when they’re created with artificial fragrances alarm bells should ring.

Some fragrances may be composed from essential oils or flower extracts, while others are cocktails of chemicals — including known carcinogens and irritants. The problem is, a regulatory loophole allows companies to avoid listing the actual ingredients that make the ‘fragrance’ listed in the label.

As with second-hand smoke, fragrances can be harmful to both users and bystanders, especially are in sprays or misting products. Immediate effects from chemical fragrances can include contact dermatitis and severe headaches, and long-term health risks are a real possibility.

Studies have found up to 4% of the general population are sensitized to typical fragrance ingredients. In New Zealand, that’s nearly a quarter of a million people!

Find a brand you can trust

If you want to spare yourself reading through ingredients lists every time you buy a skincare product, find a brand you can trust and stick to it. Okana is a great choice because the company is a committed natural skincare company that avoids thickeners, stabilizers, fragrances, and synthetic preservatives altogether.

In fact, Okana is one of the only skincare companies in the world to consistently use advanced self-preserving formulas and food-grade ingredients for mass production. Most Okana products contain just a handful of natural ingredients, so you get products that are potent and safe.