Label-reading 201

You've got the basics down, but you're ready to dive in and learn more about which ingredients you want to avoid.

There are a few resources that can help you become a more educated and efficient label-reader.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Database is a good start. Is it the end all and be all, a definitive answer on ingredient and product safety? No. No database can be perfect. But it's a good start. They use a scale of 0-10 (10 being the highest) to rank ingredient safety. One bit of advice is always look how much data they cite in the score they give the ingredient, that info will be listed underneath the score. If they give an ingredient a 1, but it says no data, I don't rely on that as a fair score. Alternatively, if they rate an ingredient a 1 but have fair data and link to 100+ studies on PubMed citing studies done on that ingredient, then the score is more trustworthy to me. The higher the number of studies listed, the more confident I am in their score.

In addition to being mindful of a low score with no data, I always suggest clicking on a higher score (I consider 3-4 high) to see how it got that score. Many times they'll give an ingredient a 4 and list: unspecified flavor. Well, if you look at the ingredient list for that product it actually does specify that it's using a certified organic flavor oil (for example), and in my opinion that is nothing of concern. Or an essential oil will get a high score, but the concerns are with proper dilution or age restrictions. The main point I want to stress is that their score is a good starting point, but don't just take it at face value. Do some additional clicking around and digging if necessary, to fully understand why they scored it that way.

And then, of course, you can go straight to PubMed or PubChem, enter an ingredient, and read as much as you want about it! I usually stick to the excerpts, but they can be fascinating!  In addition to EWG, I use good ol' Google frequently. Generally, I'll Google "concerns with X ingredient in personal care products" and then read a handful of varying sources to get an idea of what the concerns might be.

What I’ve learned in my decade+ of reading labels & trying to decipher them, and this applies to most topics:

You can find sources to support both sides of the debate. Often, there are not just 2 sides, it’s not black & white, there are grey areas. So what it boils down to for me is: is there more than a shred of doubt about the safety of x ingredient? Are there acceptable alternatives to x ingredient? Are there products that work well, that do not contain x ingredient? If so, then I’ll go with the alternative. But do challenge yourself and your research. If you're convinced x ingredient is wonderful, you can likely find info to support your belief. But challenge yourself to fully understand the opposite viewpoint.

FREE Resources:

EWG Skin Deep:

EWG Cleaning Database:




Jess is a mother of 2, blogger, and label-reading advocate who lives in WI. She has been a Poofy Organics Guide since 2014.

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