What information can I get from the label on a cosmetic?

Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD

The ingredients are so indecipherable that they might as well be written in another language. But the label is extraordinarily important. It's the one place to find accurate information about the product, and looking at the information with a discerning eye will equal empowerment at the cosmetics counter. You can see that a sunscreen offers a decent percentage of both UVA and UVB sunscreens or that a cleanser contains a harsh detergent or ingredients that will dry your skin. If the label shows that a moisturizer includes lots of heavy emollients (such as lanolin, mineral oil, and shea butter), you know it will be too greasy if you have generally oily skin. The ingredients listing provides the best guide for finding the most effective and least irritating products for your particular complexion. You just have to learn to decipher the code.

One reason the organic cosmetics market is booming could be our growing awareness (and wariness) of certain ingredients, specifically the fact that some chemicals can be harmful. There's much controversy surrounding synthetic substances such as paraben preservatives that have been tagged as potentially carcinogenic. And many additives, such as sulfites (used as preservatives) and silicones, can be irritating or harmful to the skin. For instance, when an ingredient is classified as potentially dangerous, that toxicity might occur if it is ingested in large quantities - but not necessarily when a tiny amount is applied topically. In fact, the chemical may not even have been tested on human skin. For example, propylene glycol is a component of industrial antifreeze when it is at 100 percent concentration. The amount of propylene glycol used in a cosmetic product is infinitesimal in comparison. Sometimes the science needed to strongly back up these scary claims is just not yet available. That being said, if you are pregnant or simply concerned about the effects of these ingredients, do some research and look for safer options. There are more and more of them on the market.

Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin

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Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin

What if a leading dermatologist just happened to be your best friend and you could ask her anything? DR. ELLEN MARMUR, a world-renowned New York City dermatologist, answers all your questions with...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.