Let’s face it: The green beauty industry is booming! Every time I turn around, it seems a new product is being launched and claiming it is natural, vegan, organic and the like. I myself have wandered into my local health food or grocery store, and am constantly scanning the aisles for new products. What can I say? Yes I have a love affair with products, but it's also my career as well! I am always curious what my clients and customers are talking to me about regarding the skincare and makeup products they’re using, and at times I am looking to try something new as well. It can be so daunting standing there in the aisle or even online wondering what to purchase. The endless questions fill our minds... Which product is right for me? And secondly, is this wonderful smelling lavender and vanilla body wash all that it claims to be? Or how will this tea tree facial cleanser affect my skin?  Is it really natural and a true green beauty product? To help combat the paralyzation that can happen in the beauty aisle, I've compiled a how-to guide for reading ingredient lists. Read on for the breakdown—I promise you'll feel more equipped to decipher the ingredients in beauty products labels once you take a look!

When people ask me if the product they are using is good for them, I always tell them to look at the beauty product ingredients—that's the best way to know. Come armed and empowered with your own knowledge of ingredients. Now I know the majority of people don’t own a cosmetic dictionary or aren't surfing the EWG Skin Deep list constantly, so here I want to break it down in a simple, easy-to-use format.

Ingredients fall into one of four categories:

  1. Minerals: Earth derived ingredients, like zinc oxide, iron oxides, mica, clay.
  2. Animals: Animal derived ingredients, like collagen, biotin, beeswax, keratin.
  3. Plants: Botanical derived ingredients, like vitamin C, lavender, rosehip, argan.
  4. Petroleum: Fossil Fuel derived ingredients, also known as crude oil.

The first three on this list tend to be “naturally” derived ingredients but again sourcing and manufacturing is a huge part of the origination (and a whole other topic for a different article). They are at least found in nature, on the planet and are not man-made.

The last on the list, petroleum, is a “synthetic," where the compounds have been formulated in a lab by scientists to be non-botanically sourced oils and can be then made into other synthetics, the biggest one being plastic materials (and yes, they lurk in many skin care and cosmetic products!).   

It's also good to point out that many naturally derived ingredients may be botanical versions versus animal derived. Usually the back of the bottle or box will state if it is animal derived or plant derived. The best guarantee is to contact the product company directly.

How Ingredients Function

Each ingredient is obviously there to serve some purpose to produce results. And each has a different function and trait. A trait of a product is simply broken down into this:

  1. Does the product thicken?
  2. Emulsify?
  3. Preserve?
  4. Act as a stabilizer?
  5. Create suds?
  6. Or add a scent or smell to the product?

To look for the trait of an ingredient, look at the end of the word.

Alcohols: end in -ol or -yl (These ingredients serve many different purposes, and some alcohol ingredients are bad while others are great. Alcohol can be a solvent, emulsifier, buffer or stabilizer, and can help product penetrate the skin better and much more.)

 Acids: end in -ic (These ingredients usually exfoliate the skin and help with cellular turnover, can help with fine lines and pigmentation concerns.)

Esters: end in -yl or -ate (These ingredients smooth skin texture and protect the skin as well. They are modified fatty substances that don’t make the skin feel oily at all, just smooth and moisturized.)

Polymers: Are amino acid or protein listed ingredients. (Polymers can be found in nature and can also be synthetic. Natural polymers are amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of many organic compounds. Synthetic polymers are simply stated as plastic ingredients.)

Identifying Ingredients In Each Category

Common Mineral Identification:

  • Magnesium
  • Aluminum
  • Sodium

Common Animal Identification:

  • Cetyl: cetyl-alcohol, cetyl stearate
  • Glu: glucuronic acid, glutamine
  • Gly ie: glycerin, glycogen
  • PEG: ie: abbreviated form for polyethylene glycol, there are hundreds of different PEG ingredients
  • PPG: abbreviated form for polypropylene glycol and polyoxypropylene glycol, these ingredients are made up from mixtures of polymers

Common Plant Identification:

  • Phyto: phytosomes
  • Coc: cocomide, cocoa butter
  • Sorb: sorbic acid, sorbitol
  • Palm: palm oil (anything with palm is derived from the palm plant)
  • Laur: laurel, laureth

Common Petroleum Identification:

  • Mineral Oil (most common)
  • Paragen PPG: lots of self tanning products contain this ingredient to “paint” the skin, it changes skin color.
  • Carbomer: found in many lotions, it gives the product its texture, a form of plastic.
  • Isopropyl: isopropyl alcohol is the most common and is widely used in any self care product ranging from nail polish to shampoos.

There you have it! A simple breakdown of what ingredients in beauty products are. The beauty industry can be overwhelming since we are left to fend for ourselves to make the best choices possible when it comes to beauty product ingredients. Do you feel a bit more empowered? I sure hope so! Now you can go forth in sourcing your own beauty and self care products, armed with more knowledge. Understanding ingredients, even on a basic level, is a excellent way to start!

EcoDivas, keep the questions coming! You never know if your question will be answered right here on our blog! I am just an email away at

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