'Clean'?? How To Read + Understand Beauty Labels

how to read beauty labels

Guest Post By Onicia Muller

Sometime after turning thirty, my makeup became less effective at making me look refreshed. Oh no, was it time to start slathering ten different concealers and baking my under-eye area?

Emily Sher, Today.com Style Editor, dropped two major beauty bombs that spurred me to get serious about reading and understanding makeup and skincare product labels.

  • Beauty products don’t have to be approved by the FDA before hitting store shelves.
  • The FDA does not have the power to recall beauty products. They can only request and assist with a recall.

This means that the responsibility is on us, the consumer, to do our research. 

So, in my search to create a beauty routine that made my skin look better (with and without makeup), I discovered the clean beauty movement.

ASE Beauty, a black-owned clean beauty company, says, “Clean beauty is a growing movement for creating skincare and beauty products with ingredients scientifically assessed to ensure they do not pose a risk to human health or the environment.”

Black-owned clean beauty skincare creator Dr. Anne Beal clarifies that, “‘Clean beauty’ is a term used to describe products made without ingredients that have negative health effects. It is not the same as “organic,” “all-natural” or “plant-based.” Clean beauty specifically refers to using ingredients (both natural and man-made) that are safe, non-toxic, and do not cause harm.” (heart&soul, 2020)

How to be savvy about reading beauty labels?

First off, you need to turn the bottle around, sis. Everything on the front is marketing speak. “all-natural,” “synthetic-free,” and “eco-friendly” are non-regulated terms that don’t mean anything. 

The back label is where all the product tea is spilled. This article covers fragrances, parabens, and phthalates.


You’re in the store looking for a new product and what’s one thing you do? Pop the cap and take a sniff. Sure, you want the product to work, but you also want to smell good. Companies know this, so they invest a lot into creating signature fragrances that you love and remember.

So you turn to the back of the label and you read ‘fragrance.’ One word. No explanation. That’s because ‘fragrance’ is not an ingredient; it is a trade secret. Companies are not required to disclose what those ingredients hiding behind one word are. 

Leading clean beauty scientist Dr. Nicole Acevedo says, “Some common cosmetic ingredients, such as preservatives, antioxidants, chemical UV filters and even fragrance additives can disrupt our natural hormone system or release carcinogens that can unintentionally harm our health.” (ASE Beauty, 2018)

If you have allergies or sensitive skin, going for fragrance-free products is one easy way to be savvy about reading beauty labels.

Paraben and Phthalates

Parabens are preservatives that extend the product’s shelf life. Dr. Beal says exposure to parabens results in Black women having more uterine fibroids and more aggressive types of breast cancer. Black and Latin women have paraben levels 4-8 times higher than the general population.

Switching to clean beauty products is especially important to Black women because over 75% of products marketed to Black women have ingredients classified as toxic. (heart&soul, 2020)

Phthalates make products feel silky and smooth. However, phthalates may be endocrine disruptors. Meaning they might interfere with hormone levels.

The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) told Today.com that “At this time, the FDA doesn’t have any information showing that cosmetics containing phthalates and parabens are harmful to consumers when the products are used as intended.”

PCPC is the leading national trade association representing cosmetic and personal care products companies and serving as the voice on scientific, legal, regulatory, legislative and international issues for the $488 billion global industry.

Ingredient ranking

The last thing you need to know about the basics of understanding beauty product labels is that the ingredients are listed in order. So, if the front label reads “with cocoa butter” but cocoa butter is listed last, then it’s not a significant element in the product’s formulation.

NOTE FROM EDITOR: If you look at a bottle of Minute Maid Fruit Punch, it reads '100% Natural Flavors'. What the hell are these natural flavors? Surely, it's not the 5% juice blend they mention. lol. Sorry, it's not the natural flavors from the "fruit".

Further reading

Ready to expand your clean beauty knowledge? Here are four black-owned clean beauty brands that that offer beauty tutorials as well as educational blogs.

ABOUT THE POST AUTHOR: Onicia Muller is a Chicago-based clean beauty enthusiast and comedian. Her health and beauty articles have been featured in Hello Giggles, HuffPost, Curly Nikki, and Rebellious Magazine. Find her online at OniciaMuller.com.

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