I often get asked if I can have a look at a label for someone, and let them know if the product is any good. As you can imagine, I don’t always have time to do that, so I point people in the direction of EWG and Google. But it is tricky reading labels, so I thought I’d do a series of ‘How to Read Labels’ for different products so that you, my lovely readers, have a bit more of a head start on what to look for.
As an example today, let’s have a look at some lipstick labels and we’ll have a go at reading them.
What’s actually in lipstick?
According to Wikipedia, lipstick is made up of:
- Waxes, oils, antioxidants and emollients. These are the ingredients that make the lipstick glide on smoothly. Gloss and sheer lipsticks have more oil, creme lipsticks have more wax.
- Colours, from pigments and dyes. These can be natural, as in mineral makeup, natural but animal based like carmine, or synthetic, like FD&C dyes.
- Filling agents, like silica, which are used in matte lipsticks. Silicone oils are used in long lasting lipsticks.
- Mica, silica and synthetic pearl particles are used to give a shimmery or glittery effect.
So how do you read a lipstick label?
Firstly, go straight to the back of the pack. We’re interested in what’s actually in the product, not the marketing guff on the front of the pack.
By law, ingredients must be listed in order, from the largest quantity to the smallest quantity. Then you’ll see ingredients that are less than 1% of the total product, in any order. Finally, you’ll see colour additives, in any order.
So if the first ingredient you see is water, that’s what the product is mostly made of. Worth bearing in mind if you’re paying a lot of money for a product!
Let’s read a Lavera lipstick label
Let’s start by having a look at the lovely Red Berry Charm lipstick by Lavera as an example.
Lavera’s website says:
“Since we end up ingesting whatever we put on our lips, it only makes sense to be choosy about our lipsticks. Lavera takes all the guesswork out of the question, “Is this safe?” Not only are all their lipsticks free of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals, but they’re a nourishing treat for your lips because they’re packed with hydrating and soothing oils.”
Yes, I know I told you to go straight to the back of the pack, but I find it interesting to compare their sales pitch to their actual ingredients. So here they are, Lavera’s Red Berry Charm:
Ingredients: Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil*, Rhus Verniciflua Peel Wax, Copernicia Cerifera (Carnauba) Wax*, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil*, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter)*, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil*, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Seed Butter*, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil*, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil*, Argania Spinosa Kernel Oil*, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Hippophae Rhamnoides Fruit Extract*, Malva Sylvestris (Mallow) Flower Extract*, Tilia Cordata Flower Extract*, Rosa Centifolia Flower Extract*, Alcohol*, Tocopherol, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Flavor (Aroma), [+/- Mica (CI 77019), Titanium Dioxide (CI 77891), Iron Oxide (CI 77491), Iron Oxide (CI 77492), Iron Oxide (CI 77499), Tin Oxide (CI 77861), Bismuth Oxychloride (CI 77163), Carmine (CI 75470), Ultramarines (CI 77007), Ferric Ferrocyanide (CI 77510), Manganese Violet (CI 77742), Silica (*organic ingredient)
To start with, we’ve got lots of oils and waxes, which help the lipstick to glide on smoothly yet stay on your lips. You can see that the jojoba oil is the fifth ingredient, so there’s quite a bit of that, whereas the argan oil is the twelfth ingredient, so there’s rather a lot less of that, which is understandable as argan oil is an expensive oil.
Next you can see the fruit and flower extracts, which would generally be in small amounts as you don’t need a lot of them to be effective. So there’s liquorice root extract (Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate), followed by sea buckthorn, mallow, linden flower and rose extracts. Because these individual ingredients would make up less than 1% of the total product, there may be more rose extract than liquorice root extract, and you aren’t able to tell from the ingredients list.
There’s a little bit of flavour (which you can taste when you wear their lipsticks), and then there’s the colours. Mica, titanium dioxide, tin oxide, bismuth oxychloride. These are all naturally occurring colours. Then you get to carmine, which is natural, but can be an animal product made from insects. Ultramarines are generally synthetic, as it’s incredibly expensive to get ultramarines from natural sources. Ferric Ferrocyanide is synthetic and so is Manganese Violet. Deep red and blue based lipsticks wouldn’t be possible without these last three, however, as they’re not colours that occur naturally. It’s the same with carmine. If you want a bright red lipstick, the colours are going to be either animal based or synthetic because you just don’t get naturally occurring pigments in that bright, deep red.
How can you have synthetic ingredients in a NaTrue certified product? As I explained a while ago in a post about organic certifications for cosmetics, generally the standards is that 95% of the ingredients must be natural. It’s recognised that there are some ingredients that aren’t found in nature, but consumers still want those colours or effects. So buying organic or NaTrue certified means that while you’re still getting the best possible ingredients, they may not be natural (although this is only going to be a tiny percentage).
How does Lavera’s marketing speak stack up to their ingredients?
Pretty well, actually. Lots of hydrating and soothing oils, plus fruit and flower extracts that are soothing and moisturising again. No heavy metals, as advertised. No synthetics? Well, I guess it depends on which shade you choose – don’t go with the deep reds and purples, and you’re probably okay. Lavera is NaTrue certified, and they have a great repuation, so perhaps it’s one of those colour/flavour things where you can say they’re natural if they’re ‘nature identical’?
Let’s read a Natio lipstick label
Now compare this to a mainstream brand of lipstick, Natio.
Natio’s website says:
Ingredients: Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Lanolin Oil, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax, Ozokerite, Cera Microcristallina (Microcrystalline Wax), Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, Polybutene, Butylparaben, Fragrance(Parfum), Propyl Gallate, Synthetic Wax, Tocopheryl Acetate. May contain: Mica (CI 77019), CI 19140, CI 15850, CI 42090, CI 77891,CI 77489, CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499, Tin Oxide (CI 77861), Silica, Calcium Aluminium Borosilicate
So you see that we’re also starting with castor seed oil, but the next ingredient isn’t quite as natural. Caprylic/capric triglycerides are derived from coconut oil and glycerine, but it’s heavily processed. This is one of the waxes and oils, along with the ethylhexyl palmitate (palm oil derivative), the lanolin oil, the candellila wax (which is natural), ozokerite (which is a mineral or paraffin/petroleum wax) and microcrystalline wax (which is also petroleum based). So that’s all the waxes and oils that make the lipstick glide on smoothly.
Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate a UV absorber (the sun filter). Polybutene is a thickener and a lubricant that’s a bit sticky, so it helps your lipstick to stay on. Butylparaben is a preservative (and obviously a paraben), and propyl gallate is an antioxidant that helps preserve the oils and waxes. Tocopherol acetate is another antioxidant, the synthetic version of Vitamin E. Perfume is there for the smell.
And finally, you’ve got your colours. Some of these are natural, mineral based pigments like Mica (CI 77019) and others are synthetic, like CI 19140, which is Tartrazine or FD&C yellow. CI 15850 is D&C Red 6, also synthetic, and CI 42090 which is FD&C Blue No. 1, also synthetic. It’s not until you get to the CI 77 numbers that you’re actually looking at mineral based colours: CI 77891 (Titanium Dioxide), CI 77489, CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499 (all Iron Oxides), and Tin Oxide (CI 77861).
Comparing this to the Lavera lipstick, there’s a lot more synthetic colours floating around here, that aren’t approved by organic certifying bodies or NaTrue. There’s a useful list of colourant names here, if you’re interested in having a look and learning which are naturally occurring and which aren’t.
How does Natio’s marketing speak stack up to their ingredients?
So what do you do about synthetic colours in lipstick?
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