Label Language

Finding the natural products that work for you is not an easy task.  We here at greenly have spent hours at grocery stores, markets, drugstores, beauty suppliers, and online; scrutinzing and decifering what ingredients we do and don’t want in our products.

Looking at labels is key in determining what kind of product you are dealing with.  Just because something says it is “all-natural” does not mean there aren’t bad ingredients to look out for.  Here are some important phrases we like to see on our labels:

  • NO PEGs

If you are thinking of buying a product that advertises several of these claims on its packaging then you are off to a good start.  Soon you will discover which companies are really passionate about creating natural, healthy products that you will love using.

Once you get past the announcements on the label, take a look at the ingredient list.  Here is a list of ingredients for a shea shower cream from a well-known chain bath and body shop that advertises its products as “natural, inspired by nature, ethically produced…” (for years we bought and loved their products, until we dug a little deeper).

Water, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, PEG-5 Cocamide, Coco-Glucoside, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Fragrance, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter), Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Hydroxide, Disodium EDTA, Linalool, Tocopherol, Coumarin, Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone, Limonene, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Citronellol, Citral, Geraniol, Eugenol, Caramel, Yellow 6.

Water -this product is probably made up of a lot of H20. That’s allright with us as long as the company isn’t charging an arm and a leg for it (this particular product is $8 for about 8 oz, very reasonable).

Next we come across a word in latin. We think this is a good sign on any label because if an ingredient has a latin name it has probably an been around a very long time and is most likely a natural substance.  In this case we have Sunflower Seed Oil, very nourishing.

But the next ingredient gives us pause; Sodium Laureth Sulfate (which is slightly less irritating to skin and eyes than Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, but can contribute longterm to kidney and liver problems) is an inexpensive surfactant synthesized from coconut oil. The data on SLS seems to be pretty cut and dry concerning the scope of its negative health connotations, so it may be quite beneficial to avoid SLS in your search for greener options.

PEG-5 Cocamide is a detergent created by chemically combining Polyethylene Glycol with coconut fatty acids. Its low on the toxic spectrum except for the chance it could contain carcinogenic impurities, so we could do without it.

Coco Glucoside is a coconut-oil/sugar combo with no harsh qualities. However, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, a synthetic detergent, could potentially be contaminated with nasty residual chemicals from processing and cause skin irritation and allergic reations.

As for Fragrance, we prefer not to see the word listed at all because due to trade secret laws, companies do not have to reveal what a fragrance consists of.  If we do buy a product with fragrance, we prefer it to be stated as all-natural, non-synthetic, or phtalate-free (though essential oils are even more preferable scents).

Acrylates are synthetic thickening additives, but have no harmful consequences as far as we know.  Shea Butter and Sesame Seed Oil are welcome ingredients, but Phenoxyethanol gives us some concern.  Phenoxyethanol is a rather toxic preservative found in many products, including fragrance (which means we also want to see the phrase phenoxyethanol-free when we see the word fragrance). It is used instead of preservatives that release nasty formaldehyde, but now there is more data about the dangers of phenoxyethanol that make us not want it in our products either.

Sodium Benzoate is a salt preservative used often in acidic food and sodas and can combine with vitamin C to form benzene, a carcinogen. It is dangerous in high doses but on the skin in small doses does not pose as much danger, though we would avoid using lotion that contains this product.

Sodium Hydroxide, or Lye, is an emulsifier that is highly toxic in high doses if ingested, inhaled, gets in eyes or on skin. So in our opinion, the less of this ingredient in your products the better.

Disodium EDTA is used in salt form to minimize reactivity of metal ions in cosmetic substances. It does not seem to have hazardous affects on the skin but does have potential to increase penetration of other chemicals, so in large amounts this would be quite dangerous (though it is used in very small amounts in most personal products).

Some of the following ingredients are naturally occurring but may cause allergic reactions or be harsh on very sensitive skin.  Using process of elimination to determine if you are allergic to an ingredient in one of your products may be the best solution. Some labels claim that these types of ingredients are not addititves but are found within the essential oils used to scent a product and feel they need to list them anyway. It gets confusing because some of theseLinalool is an alcohol naturally found in plants and found in natural fragrances. Although we don’t mind seeing this on a label, even linalool can break down to an oxidized by-product that could irritate the skin.

Tocopherol refers to vitamin E, not a concern here.

Coumarin is a sweet fragrant chemical compound found in plants that is semi-toxic when ingested by humans and has restricted use in fragrances due to allergens.

Alpha Isomethyl-Ionone also has restricted use in fragrance and could be an allergen (Ionone occurs naturally in some essential oils, such as rose).

Limonene is naturally found in the rinds of citrus fruits; possible skin irritant with restricted use in scents and cosmetics, also used in cleaning solvents.

Butylphenyl Methylpropional is a synthetic chemical used in scents and is also restricted due to skin irritation.

Citronellol is a natural ingredient derived from plants such as rose and geranium and is also limited in use because it may be an allergen.

Citral, Geraniol, and Eugenol are naturally occuring scent ingredients that are also reproduced synthetically, and have slightly higher risks of skin sensitization, contact dermatitis, etc.

Caramel is sugar used for color or scent, no concern.

Yellow 6 is a synthetic dye made from petroleum.

Now that we know what this shower cream consists of, will we use it? The answer is probably not, when there are other options out there.  A creamy shea-based body wash that is made with more natural and organic ingredients is out there, and we will help you find it.

This information was gathered from internet research, product websites, and books. We encourage you to do additional research if you are still unsure about which ingredients you do or don’t want in your products.  We hope that understanding label language will guide you toward the right products for you.

Sources include

A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, 7th Edition by Ruth Winter, M.S. Three Rivers Press, 2009




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