Tips for Evaluating Product Safety & Reading Ingredient Labels

Reading ingredient labels is an essential part of switching to non-toxic products. You have to be careful to not make assumptions that a product is safe based on its label claims, like “all natural” or “dermatologist recommended”. That does not necessarily guarantee a product is safe. Here are a few tips that I found to be helpful in making decisions about products:

  • Scan the bottle first. What you’re looking for:
    • Are there any certifications on the product? USDA, leaping bunny, Oregon Tilth, etc… (I’ll do a blog post on these at some point)
    • Does it tout “all natural” or something to that effect and have no apparent evidence that support this claim?
    • Face-wash specific: does it say “oil-free” – that is a bad sign
  • Scan the ingredient list. What you’re looking for:
    • How long is the ingredient list? Are ALL the active AND inactive ingredients disclosed, if applicable?
    • What are the first five ingredients?
    • Are ingredients labeled organic?
    • Do you recognize the ingredient names as plants or fruits?
  • Learn the basic toxic chemicals to avoid and what is normal to expect in different products (like a lotion is usually a mix of water and a bunch of oils; shampoo will have some kind of foaming agent or soap in it)

I have discovered, after years of looking at different ingredient lists, that there are patterns to the words that are usually the toxic ingredients. There are similarities that you can use in your initial assessment to determine if an ingredient is worth a second look. These are some of the things that catch my eye when I scan a list of ingredients:

  • Words or parts of words: e.g., Butyl, propyl, methyl, lauryl, -ic, –ene, -ate, carbomer, petrolatum, paraffin
  • Numbers:  e.g., 1,4- or -120
  • Capitalized abbreviations: e.g., PEG, EDTA
  • Numerical prefixes or parts: e.g., penta, poly, deca, abbreviations (like EDTA),
  • Artificial dyes: (colors with numbers or the word “lake”) e.g., red 40
  • Fragrance or parfum (unless from essential oils or botanicals)

This image below nicely lays out how to identify petrochemicals in your products. I got this from a Canadian company called Cocoon Apothecary.  

Remember that this is a constant process, and even I continually agonize over comparing products, determining safety of ingredients, and sometimes fail to catch that one little deal-breaking chemical in the long ingredient list of a product. My bottom line recommendation is just be patient, take a few minutes to look carefully at products, and don’t be too disheartened if you think a product is safe and then find out it probably isn’t.

Other resources: