How to Read an Ingredient List

*@!* you ingredient list: You’re the sans serif version of mansplaining: big words, little meaning.

But I’ll do my best to give ya a general breakdown on tackling the IL, and some quick tips on making sense of all the scary-looking science words.

Pro-Tip: When turning over a box or flipping over to the back of a bottle, I like to visually cut the IL into three chunks. (All good things, after all, come in threes).

Act I: The Bulk

Ingredients are listed from highest quantity by weight (%w/w) to lowest. The first 3-5 materials listed typically make up the bulk of the product, in both weight and functionality. These primary ingredients will give you a good sense of the product’s general function and feel. Namely, if the product is meant for cleansing, moisturization, coloring, etc., and with what viscosity or general texture is it delivering that function.

Act II: The Fun Stuff

While most of your attention should be paid to the top 5 ingredients, the product’s fun features are usually a function of the the ingredients listed in the middle. These ingredients will clue you in to specific product features (color, slipperiness, stickiness).

Act III: Who’s to Say

The IL gets a bit tricky towards the end.

Pro Tip: Skim the IL until you get to Di-/Tertasodium EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). This is a common preservative booster and is rarely used above 0.2% w/w. Most ingredients listed after EDTA are merely claimed: their levels are so low, they’re effectively absent. Fragrance ingredients are usually the only exception to this rule. With smelly things, a little goes a long way. Just 0.01% w/w of a fragrance oil is enough to mildly fragrance a liquid product.

Oftentimes a product’s front label will claim the presence of some super fancy, luxurious-sounding ingredient—the presence of which likely enticed you to buy the product. But a quick skim of the ingredient list usually shows the ingredient is present, if at all, at levels so low that it’s likely absent. Yes, a drop or two of this magical ingredient may have been added to the giant production batch, but those molecules did not likely make it into the bottle you picked up.

It is law that all ingredients that might be in a product should be listed. It is not law that all ingredients listed are indeed in the product. A product can claim to be boosted with a few drops of a super special oil, but this boasted boost may just be hot air. It is entirely possible (and legal!) for an ingredient to be claimed, but not present in a perceptible amount. This “claims” practice is commonly done with vitamins, antioxidants, and natural extracts.

If an ingredient is not a fragrance and is listed after EDTA, it’s more of a nice idea than an active ingredient. Check out my heads up about FDA regulation for why companies can get away with this.

Important side note: Some of the ingredients listed after EDTA (present at levels below 0.2% w/w) may be present at levels greater than 0.2% w/w. These are ingredients that are added at the end of and “on top of” a batch, in case the bulk product needs a pH or viscosity adjustment post-processing.

All this is to say: The end of the list isn’t definitive. For allergy and sensitivity reasons, it’s safest to assume that all ingredients listed are present. But when it comes to functionality, that small bit of super fancy special ingredient is likely wholly absent, and more of a nice idea than an active ingredient.

Of course all ingredients add something to the functionality and physical characteristics of the final product. Roughly chopping up the IL and looking at ingredients in this way is an imperfect system, but it does add some structure to my otherwise aimless Sephora grazing.

Chunking the IL and predicting the product’s features takes practice, but stick with me and soon you’ll only be reading the back of the box. If only because you’re too clever to fall for marketers’ harebrained claims and shiny tricks printed on the front of the packaging.