Who even cares about the sticky bit of paper on the back of your makeup & skincare, full of weird little symbols no one looks at and lists of ingredients that you’ve never even heard of?! They’re surprisingly useful though, and mean you know you’re using the best products, in the best way, for your skin. 

There’s a lot of information on there, most of which is legally required, but the most important to most customers are the ingredients and the symbol labelling, which is what we’re going to have a look at today.


First off, the ingredients, or known as INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) is one of the most important, not just for what’s in the product, but how much of each ingredient.  By law, the ingredient list is in order of the highest quantity ingredients first going down to the lowest quantity.  So when you have a product which claims on the front of the bottle something like ‘Contains Organic Argan Oil’ it sounds great right? Except then on the ingredients the organic argan oil is the 5th ingredient..from the end, meaning it’s likely about 1% Argan Oil, not so great!  There’s nothing illegal about labelling a product as such, because it does contain Organic Argan Oil, but that’s why it’s so important to check what it is we’re actually buying.  

A lot of the ingredients can look scary, but following the myth of ‘if you can’t pronounce it, don’t use it’ isn’t always a good idea, a lot of naturally derived ingredients have quite complex chemical names but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them.  For example, you’ll never see ‘Water’ on the ingredients list – it’s always ‘Aqua’, and these products are exactly the same – 

  • Rosa damascena – Rose
  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) – An enzyme which our skin naturally produces & gives antioxidant protection
  • Curcuma longa – Turmeric
  • Epigallocatechin Gallate – Derived from green tea
  • Glyceryl Caprylate – Produced from vegetable oils, it stabilises products and helps regulate skin’s moisture

Some really good resource to check what ingredients really are –

INCIDecoder website  – https://incidecoder.com which has a pretty complete database of a lot of cosmetic ingredients, and is updated regularly. 

Skin Deep – https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ where you can search for ingredients and also gives ratings for expected sensitivity and any concerns. 

Next up, let’s decode the little symbols – 

Opened Jar Symbol – 

Officially known as the Period After Opening (PAO) symbol, this tells you how long the product should be open for before being replaced, with the number of months on the jar.  It’s a legal requirement to have it on any cosmetic product, but if it’s rubbed off a pretty good guide is – 

  • Mascara – Replace every 3 months
  • Lipstick & Liquid Products – 12 months
  • Powders – 24 months

Book with a finger – 

Meaning ‘Refer to Insert’, which is basically when there’s not enough room on the packaging to display all the information it means the rest of the label is on either an insert or on the product box. You could also see a small arrow in the bottom corner of the label indicating the label is multilayered and you can peel it up to show the rest of the information.  

UVA in circle – 

On sunscreen products it’s not only the SPF which is important, if a product isn’t broad spectrum, protecting your skin from both UVA and UVB rays you’re still at risk of sun damage.  The UVA label means it meets the minimum EU standards of UVA protection alongside the SPF which protects from UVB. 

Recycling – 

We all know how important recycling is and luckily most companies now package their products in recycled materials.  The most commonly used symbols are – 

Recyclable – Shows the packaging can be recycled, sometimes with additional symbols to show what type of plastic is used so it can be recycled accordingly. 

The Green Dot (which confusingly usually isn’t green) – Most commonly used in the EU, it shows that for each piece of packaging used by the company it gives a financial contribution to a national recycling organisation. 

Flame – 

Pretty self explanatory, and found on a lot of labels that aren’t skincare or cosmetics, it simply means the product is flammable.  Generally in cosmetics it’s for aerosols and products containing a large quantity of alcohol.  

Certified Cruelty Free – 

The two main certifiers of Crulety Free cosmetics are PETA and Cruelty Free International (or the Leaping Bunny).  Both organisations audit the companies they certify along with their supply chains to ensure the products from raw ingredients to the finished products are entirely cruelty free.