As I’ve said before, the world of personal care and cosmetics is completely saturated with marketing, influencers, and lofty claims. When trying to navigate the landscape of the beauty world, this can throw you for a loop. Have no fear, I am here to help smooth it all out. Trying to decipher the nitty gritty behind the regulations and standards of the beauty world can be daunting, and honestly no fun at all. My goal is to help you develop confidence when selecting a beauty product. Let’s start off with the real reason that we are all buying products in the first place, the product itself – ingredient listings.

Five Tips to Help Read an Ingredient Listing

All of the following information is in accordance with the FDA Cosmetic Labeling Guide.


First thing’s first; ingredient listings should be shown in descending order of predominance, up to 1%.

What does this mean? The first ingredient listed is present in the formula at the highest percentage. If water is listed first, it is in the formula at the highest percentage. Ingredients are then listed in descending order, as their concentration gets lower in the formulation. Any ingredient above 1% must be listed in this order. Below 1%, that’s a whole different ball game.

An ingredient present below 1% can be listed in any order.

Essentially, all of the marketing ingredients (think: anti-aging ingredients, fancy oils, collagen, etc.) in a concentration below 1% can be brought up higher in the ingredient listing for appeal. Marketing ingredients are generally included in formulations at small percentages, solely based on their cost. They’re way more expensive than their synthetic counterpart! In order to make products seem more potent, companies can put these marketing ingredients before the preservative system, even though they are present in the formula at a lesser or the same percentage. This is not to say that all brands are trying to trick you. There are many brands out there that use a good amount of a care ingredient, and label as such.

Colors, fragrances, flavors, and trade secrets are not required to appear in the ingredient listings at their percentage.

That’s right. These additives usually appear at the end of the ingredient listing, no matter what percentage they are present in the formula at.

There are certain requirements and standards that dictate how ingredients must be written.

Brands can’t just label ingredients however they want! In the US, there are four standards to follow when labeling ingredients. This consistency insures that all consumers know exactly what they’re getting in a product, instead of a misleading trade name. No one knows what JEESPERSE T50 OP is! There are actually four different ingredients that make that specific trade name up. All four of these ingredients, must be listed at their total percentage present in the formula.

Cosmetics can also be over-the-counter drugs, so keep an eye out!

This is by no way, shape, or form a bad thing. In fact, OTC drugs are more heavily regulated by the FDA. The Federal Food Drug & Cosmetic (FD&C) Act states:

A product intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance is a cosmetic. If this product claims to accomplish these deeds through physiological activity or by changing the structure of the skin, it is also a drug. The product categories “drug” and “cosmetic” are not mutually exclusive.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the Drug Facts panel on sunscreen – if you haven’t, put that baby down! Look for a brand that labels properly. When dealing with cosmetic OTC drugs, you really want to be careful. If your sunscreen is poorly represented, that gives me the inkling that it’s probably poorly manufactured as well. Sunburns are no fun! Some potent acne treatments can actually damage your skin if not formulated with the right balance of ingredients.


I hope this helped, even just a little bit! These should act as tools for you to become a more informed consumer, and a more confident beauty-buyer! Let me know if you have any other questions about labeling in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Disclaimer: This post is in reference to FDA Labeling Standards for Cosmetics, only. This does not apply to any other country. Furthermore, this is not intended to act as labeling rule for the cosmetics industry, and you should always consult your regulatory or legal counsel for guidance.