Chemical Ingredients 101: How to Read a Product Label
Ingredient labels for food and other products we use every day, like toothpaste or soap, often include unfamiliar chemical names – even basic ingredients like salt, water and baking soda are often identified on a product label by technical names: sodium chloride, aqua and sodium hydrogen carbonate.
Why are ingredient labels so complex? Product manufacturers and chemists routinely rely on technical standards when labeling their products, to help ensure quality and consistency. While this means labels may include chemical names that are unfamiliar, with a little research using credible sources (such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the product manufacturer), you can find out why a chemical, or any other specific ingredient, is in a product and what benefit it provides.
Here are a few examples of chemical compounds included in everyday products and the benefits they provide:
- Sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda, in toothpaste helps to polish teeth.
- Sodium fluoride in toothpaste and other dental care items helps prevent cavities.
- Calcium carbonate, dehydrated silica gels, hydrated aluminum oxides, magnesium carbonate, phosphate salts and silicates are other chemical compounds are included in toothpastes for their unique properties that aid in the removal of tooth debris and residual surface stains.
- Sorbitol, a type of sugar derived from fruits, corn and seaweed, helps make toothpaste taste more pleasant.
Skin care products
- Parabens (such as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben) are highly effective in preventing the growth of fungi, bacteria and yeast in personal care products like makeup or shaving cream.
- Preservatives help extend a product’s shelf life, as well as prevent contamination and the growth of harmful bacteria, in products ranging from sunscreens, lotions and shampoos to cleansers, toothpaste and makeup.
- Propylene glycol and polypropylene glycols (also known as 1,2-propanediolare) are often in skin care products such as moisturizers, creams and lotions. This chemical compound helps attract water to skin. When added to moisturizing products, it helps to enhance the appearance of skin by reducing flaking and restoring suppleness.
- Titanium dioxide is mined from the earth and further processed and purified for use in consumer products (like makeup, nail products, bath soaps and foot powders, as well as over-the-counter sunscreen products). A colorant, titanium dioxide help make products white and to increase opaqueness. Titanium dioxide can absorb, reflect, and scatter light, making it a critical component in some sunscreen products to protect skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate help create a soapy lather in products like bubble baths, bath soaps and detergents and shampoos, to help cleanse hair and skin.
- Triclocarban is an antimicrobial product used in soap and antiseptic foaming solutions (foam hand washes and wound care products) to help reduce harmful bacteria on the skin, as well as lessen transmission of germs.
- Surfactants are typically used in soap to help in the removal of dirt and oil from hair and skin.
More information about product labels
Do you have more questions about chemicals in products? The following resources can help:
- Search for specific chemical ingredients on ChemicalSafetyFacts.org
- CosmeticsInfo.org has detailed information on ingredients used in person care products.
- Contact the product manufacturer. The product packaging or label should include contact information or a website.
- Websites maintained by federal agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control also provide useful information about ingredients and labeling.