How to Read Ingredients Labels on Personal Care Products

Learn how to spot harmful chemicals listed on ingredients labels on your personal care products.

reading ingredient labels

Knowledge is power, particularly when deciphering personal care product labels.

Labels are more than mere lists; they are roadmaps for avoiding toxic chemicals. They can also help you identify clean products based on certain certifications. In our 'greenwashed' world, distinguishing genuinely clean products can be daunting. That's where we come in - to help you efficiently read labels, unmask the truth about your products, and empower you to make informed, planet-friendly choices. So, let's dive into the world of ingredient labels together.

Why Reading Ingredients Labels Matters

Reading ingredient labels for personal care products is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, it helps you ensure the safety of the products you're using. By understanding what's in your products, you can avoid ingredients that might cause allergic reactions or other harm. 

Secondly, it allows you to make informed choices about what you're putting on your body. Some ingredients may have potential health risks, and by reading labels, you can avoid chemicals that could put your health at risk. 

Lastly, it helps you make ethical choices. For instance, if you want to avoid animal-tested products or a product that could be harmful to the environment, ingredient labels provide this information. 

3 Steps to Reading a Personal Care Label

Personal care products contain a lot of important information. Sort through this info by reading a label properly. 

Here are three steps for finding cleaner products:

  1. Ignore buzzwords like “BPA-free, ” or “paraben-free,” as they may still contain other toxic chemicals.  

  2. Read the ingredients label or scan it using Clearya, Think Dirty, or EWG Skin Deep to determine if there are toxic chemicals in the product. 

  3. Look for certifications to determine if the product has undergone quality control to avoid contaminations. 

How to Use Apps to Scan Ingredients

There are several mobile applications available that allow users to scan the ingredients in personal care products to evaluate their safety.

  1. Clearya: This app helps you shop safely by alerting you to unsafe substances in your online shopping. It checks product pages while you shop online and alerts about chemicals of concern in the ingredient list. It covers a wide range of products, from personal care to household items.

  2. Think Dirty: This application allows you to learn about potentially toxic ingredients in your cosmetics and personal care products. You can scan the product barcode and Think Dirty will give you easy-to-understand info on the product, track dirty ingredients, and shop for cleaner options.

  3. EWG Skin Deep: The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a free online resource for finding less hazardous alternatives to personal care and beauty products. It provides safety ratings for a wide range of products and ingredients on the market.

Five Key Ingredients to Avoid in Personal Care Products

Personal care products can have dozens of ingredients. Reading all of them can be time-consuming. 

Save time by scanning labels for the terms below and avoiding products that list them on their label:

harmful ingredients to look out for on labels

  • Fragrance/Perfume/Parfum: These terms refer to a mixture of chemicals that often includes phthalates, chemicals applied to prolong fragrance longevity. However, they've been linked to hormonal disruptions and reproductive issues.

  • Parabens: Look for words ending in '-paraben.’ These are preservatives used to extend shelf life. Some research suggests they mimic estrogen and could potentially increase cancer risk, prompting many to avoid them.

  • Sulfates: Common ones include sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). They create the foamy lather in many products but some sulfates have been linked to endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation. 

  • Glycerin, Petroleum, Mineral Oil: Glycerin is often used to hydrate the skin. Petroleum-based glycerin is commonly used and prone to impurities. We recommend avoiding glycerin unless it's denoted as vegetable-based. Vegetable-based glycerin is safe to use.  

  • Polyethylene Glycols - ingredients listed as polyethylene glycol or with a PEG- prefix such as PEG-20, PEG 40 etc.

When you start scanning the ingredients list, you can stop reading the label once you see one of these ingredients. We recommend finding a different product instead. 

How to Read a Label - More In-Depth Things to Know

Most product labels are listed under the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) system. INCI standardizes ingredient labels to make it easier for consumers to make educated decisions about their purchases. 

High vs Low Weight

Typically, ingredients on product labels are listed from highest to lowest by weight. For example, if the first ingredient listed is water, it means that water is the ingredient present in the largest amount by weight in the product.

If you see any of the Five Key Ingredients above near the beginning of the list, then there is probably a lot of that chemical in the product. 

However, the rule changes slightly for ingredients that make up less than 2% of the product's total weight. Anything 2% or lower doesn’t need to be listed in any specific order. 

This can be troublesome in three ways:

  1. Customers may be unknowingly exposing themselves to toxic chemicals. Repeated exposure to toxic chemicals hidden at the end of an ingredient list can still lead to health problems.

  2. Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system (hormones) can do so in very small amounts. This makes it even more important to avoid even small amounts of such chemicals.

  3. It makes false marketing easier. Many products will feature a fruit or botanical on the label, like Garnier Fructis’ Triple Nutrition Shampoo. It has a picture of an avocado front and center and shows it as a key ingredient, which makes the product look natural and healthy. However, when you read the ingredients label, there are many harmful chemicals in larger amounts - before avocado oil is listed. 

how to read an ingredients label

The more you read labels, the quicker it will be to identify toxic chemicals and red flags. In the meantime, remember to use resources like EWG Skin Deep, Cleaya, and Think Dirty. 

Active vs. Inactive Ingredients

Products like sunscreens and some skin creams categorize ingredients as “active” or “inactive.”

  • Active ingredients: The “stars of the show,” sanctioned by the FDA for specific purposes (like benzoyl peroxide for acne treatment)’

  • Inactive ingredients: The “supporting roles,” everything else in the product that is not an active ingredient. These can serve as fillers, lathering agents, preservatives, texture enhancers, fragrances etc. 

Don’t let the term “inactive” lead you astray. These chemicals still come into contact with your body and could potentially be toxic. 

Sometimes, product labels only highlight active ingredients, which may be present in minor quantities, giving them prominence because they sound organic or natural. Don't be fooled. This often leaves out the majority of the ingredients.

More Ingredients, More Problems

As a rule of thumb, the more ingredients a product contains, the higher the potential for contamination. This is due to the extensive process each ingredient must go through before it ends up in your personal care product.

Firstly, each ingredient needs to be sourced. This process can involve various suppliers and locations, each with their own quality control measures, which may vary considerably. The raw materials can be exposed to contaminants during cultivation or extraction.

Secondly, the ingredient must be shipped, often across great distances. During transportation, there's a risk of exposure to pollutants, extreme temperatures, and other harmful factors that could affect the ingredient's purity.

Then there's the mixing process. Each ingredient is combined to create the final product. This step can introduce contaminants if the equipment used isn't properly cleaned or maintained.

Furthermore, when you mix different ingredients together, they interact with each other. Sometimes, these interactions can lead to the formation of new compounds, some of which might be harmful.

Good Product Certifications to Look Out for

label certifications

While product certifications can be a helpful guide to choosing personal care products, it's important to remember that they don't guarantee a product is completely free from potentially harmful chemicals. However, they do indicate a good start and can suggest the product has fewer toxic ingredients. Here are some common certifications and what they mean:


The Environmental Working Group awards this seal to products that meet their strictest health standards, which include transparent ingredient disclosure and adherence to good manufacturing practices.

EWG-Verified Standards

USDA Organic

This certification means that the product contains at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). The remaining components must be approved substances listed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

USDA Organic Certification Standards


This certification indicates that a product is free from any toxic ingredients known or suspected to harm humans, animals, aquatic life, or the environment. 

Made Safe Certification Standards

Non-GMO Project Verified

This certification assures that a product was produced without genetic engineering and its ingredients are not derived from GMOs.

non-gmo verified

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)

This leading textile processing standard for organic fibers ensures the organic status from harvesting raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing to labeling.

GOTS certification

Remember, while these certifications are good indicators of a product's quality and ethical standards, it's always essential to read the full ingredient list and make an informed choice.

Good Ingredients to Look Out for

Personal care products require a lot of ingredients, which requires other ingredients to keep these products together…and to help them last longer. Here are some safer ingredients compared to other chemicals. Don’t be alarmed if you see them on the label. 


  • Ascorbic Acid: Also known as Vitamin C, is a potent antioxidant that also prevents spoilage. 

  • Citric Acid: Derived from citrus fruits, adjusts the acidity of a product, creating an environment less hospitable to harmful bacteria and mold

  • Apple Cider Vinegar: Rich in acetic and citric acids, has antimicrobial properties, which helps to preserve the product by inhibiting the growth of microorganism

The following may be skin irritants. So, if you don’t experience any symptoms, they may be safe to use:

  • Phenoxyethanol: A preservative used in cosmetics and skincare products to prevent bacterial growth, but it can cause skin and eye irritation in some individuals.

  • Sodium Benzoate: A salt of benzoic acid, used as a preservative in a variety of personal care products, but it may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin

  • Ethylheyxlglycerin: A glyceryl ether used as a preservative and skin conditioning agent in personal care products, but it has the potential to cause skin irritation or dermatitis in some individuals.


  • Lecithin: A natural emulsifier derived from soy or sunflower seeds.

  • Cetearyl Alcohol: Derived from natural oils, it helps to stabilize products and make them smooth.

  • Decyl Glucoside: A mild, non-ionic surfactant used in cosmetic formulations, including baby shampoo and in products for individuals with sensitive skin.

Natural Colorants

  • Red: Hibiscus, beets

  • Pink: Avocado pits, madder root

  • Orange: Pomegranate rind, onion peels

  • Yellow: Tamarind, turmeric

  • Green: Spinach, leafy greens

  • Blue: Indigo plant, spirulina

  • Violet: Cochineal beetles, grape skin

  • Brown: Coffee, tea leaves

Cleansing Agents

  • Coco Glucoside: A gentle surfactant that cleanses without stripping the skin.

  • Lauryl Glucoside: Another mild cleansing agent suitable for sensitive skin.

  • Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate: A very gentle surfactant derived from coconut oil.

Skin Conditioners & Moisturizers

  • Shea Butter: A rich moisturizer packed with vitamins.

  • Jojoba Oil: Closely mimics the skin's own sebum, making it an excellent moisturizer.

  • Hyaluronic Acid: Helps retain moisture in the skin.


  •  Non-Nano Zinc Oxide: A physical sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

Remember, even though these ingredients are generally considered safer, it's always best to do a patch test when trying a new product. Everyone's skin is different and can react differently to various ingredients.

A List of Chemicals to Avoid

There are over 85,000 chemicals used in products, but only 1% have been tested for safety effectively. 

Here are some chemicals you should avoid in personal care products, based on current research:


  • Parabens (e.g., butylparaben): Can disrupt the endocrine system and lead to reproductive toxicity.

  • Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: Release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, over time (quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, and 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane).

  • BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole): Linked to endocrine disruption and organ-system toxicity.

  • BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene): Similar to BHA, also linked to endocrine disruption and organ-system toxicity.

  • Methylisothiazolinone and Methylchloroisothiazolinone: Can lead to lung toxicity, allergic reactions, and possible neurotoxicity.

  • Quaternium-15: Linked to skin irritation and allergies and is a known human carcinogen.

Emulsifiers & Foaming Agents

  • Ethanolamine compounds (cocamide DEA, MEA, TEA): Can irritate the skin and eyes and cause organ system toxicity.

  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLES): Can irritate skin and eyes and are potentially contaminated with carcinogenic substances.


  • Coal tar dyes: Potentially carcinogenic and may contain heavy metals toxic to the brain.

  • Carbon Black: Used in eyeliners, mascaras, and lipstick, it's a potential carcinogen.

  • D&C Red 33 and FD&C Yellow 5: Synthetic colorants that can cause skin irritation and are suspected to be carcinogenic.


  • Dibutyl phthalate: Linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity.

  • Ethyl acrylate: A possible carcinogen.


  • Parfum (or fragrance): Can include harmful ingredients that cause allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress, and potential effects on the reproductive system.

  • Phthalates: Linked to endocrine disruption and reproductive toxicity.

Cleansing Agents

  • Sulfates: Can irritate skin and eyes and may contain carcinogenic contaminants.

  • Alkylphenols (nonylphenol and octylphenol): Used in some detergents and emulsifiers, they are endocrine disruptors and persist in the environment.

Skin Conditioners & Moisturizers

  • Mineral oil: Can clog pores and harm skin's natural functions.

  • Petroleum Jelly: Can clog pores and contains potential carcinogens.

  • Propylene Glycol: Can irritate skin, eyes, and lungs.

  • Siloxanes: Polymers used to give formulas smoother textures. Cyclotetrasiloxane (D4) is a siloxane banned in Europe due to concerns this chemical may be linked to infertility and cancer. 

Sunscreen Ingredients

  • Oxybenzone: Linked to endocrine disruption and potential cellular damage.

  • Avobenzone: Can degrade in sunlight and release harmful free radicals.

Other Ingredients

  • DEA-related ingredients (cocamide DEA, lauramide DEA, linoleamide DEA, oleamide DEA): Can react to form nitrosamines, which are associated with cancer.

  • PEG compounds (PEG-100 Stearate, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate): Can be contaminated with ethylene oxide (a carcinogen) and 1,4-dioxane (which potentially causes cancer).

  • Toluene: Can affect the nervous system and cause birth defects.

  • Triclosan: Linked to endocrine disruption and can contribute to antibiotic resistance.

  • Hydroquinone: Linked to cancer, organ toxicity, and skin irritation.

  • Resorcinol: Associated with endocrine disruption and organ system toxicity.

  • Methylene glycol: A known human carcinogen.

Shop Million Marker Approved Products

Let's remember that reading ingredients labels is like learning a new language - the language of your own well-being! It’s an essential skill that lets you take control of your exposure to toxic chemicals. Yes, it might take some time, but hey, Rome wasn't built in a day, right
The good news is you're not alone in this journey. We at Million Marker are here to give you a helping hand. Think of us as your personal shopping guides, pointing you towards products that have our stamp of approval. 

Million Marker Approved Products are free from the 'bad guys' like phthalates, parabens, and those other toxic chemicals we've been talking about.

For convenience, we have many of these products in our Amazon store. That way, you can save time and bundle your shipping on a variety of non-toxic brands.

Not all of our recommended products are on Amazon. You can discover them here. 

So, let's make shopping a fun, empowering adventure in reducing toxic exposures. After all, who said being health-conscious couldn't be exciting? Let's do this together!