How to read labels when buying organic, vegan, cruelty-free & natural brands?

Understand the eco-certifications behind labels for each country [Ultimate Guide]

Many of us want to jump on the train of organic, natural, fair-trade, vegan but we find a huge number of certifications and symbols variations which gets us confused! This helpful guide on how to read labels and eco-certifications across countries to avoid confusion and tap into ethical shopping like a pro!

Product Labels aren’t always the easiest things to figure out, and the only way to know what is in your products and how safe they really are is to understand the labels. Some products contain ingredients that have been shown to cause irritation, disrupt hormones, or even cause harm. In addition to this, there are more and more opportunities to buy products that are not only free from harmful chemicals but which are also cruelty-free, fair trade, sustainable and biodegradable, with recyclable packaging.

In order to choose cruelty-free brands, one needs to do extensive research on all the products that are available in the market. Some products claim to be cruelty-free but more often than not prove to be otherwise. Looking for products having affiliation and accreditation from global animal rights associations is one of the surest ways of purchasing products that are cruelty-free. These things help to ensure you are purchasing products made by brands that have good intentions for the producers, the end-users, the animals and the wider environment. My aim is to show you what to look out for to make an informed decision on the products you buy with this full guide to read organic and natural labels.

Remember, products are marketed very well to get you to buy them! So what appears to be a ‘natural’ product at first glance may actually not be as green as you think if you look more closely. For example, a product may be labelled as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ to imply that the product is made entirely from natural or organic ingredients when in fact maybe only one or two of the ingredients are from a natural or organic source. Also, there are some products and brands which are more sustainable, eco-friendly and more beneficial for society than others. I will show you what to look out for.

Therefore my first blog post for you is to share my top tips on reading product labels. I’ll give you my tips on what to look for and what to avoid to try and decipher the misleading labels that are all around us.

Check the label for the following symbols

The table below contains some of the main certification symbols from around the world. If the product label contains these symbols, this is a really good sign as it means the ingredients have been certified by an independent organisation. After the certification symbols, I then list some of the other symbols to look out for on packaging labels such as cruelty-free, recyclable packaging, vegan and so on.

Certification Name, Country and Symbol

What they do

COSMOS (Cosmetic Organic Standard)

A new combination of individual European countries has formed a  Harmonised standard for organic and natural cosmetics.

The countries involved are: Germany (BDIH), France (Cosmebio), France (Ecocert), Italy (ICEA), UK (Soil Association)

guide read labels cosmos organic natural certified products


Products with the COSMOS certification have

  • No Animal testing
  • No GM ingredients
  • No Controversial chemicals
  • No Parabens and Phthalates
  • No Synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances

COSMOS Organic:  

  • 95% of the physically made ingredients must be organic.
  • Ingredients from organic farming, wildlife friendly, environmentally sustainable farming systems, no toxic pesticides, no artificial fertilisers.

COSMOS Natural:  

  • Products which may or may not contain organic ingredients.

COSMOS Certified:

  • Bulk ingredients with some organic content. For example a shampoo base with organic ingredients or a blend of organic essential oils.
UK – Soil Association Certified

guide read labels Soil Association Certified products

  • The UK’s main organic certification body
  • The Soil Association is the British standard for natural and/or organic cosmetics
  • The Soil Association provide an independent and rigorous process of certification.
  • They look at the entire manufacturing process including the source of ingredients, formulation procedures and premises, packaging, energy and water usage information, environmental waste management plans for the companies, review marketing messages for consumer clarity
  • They carry out annual inspections to ensure certified products still meet the standards.
France – Ecocert

guide read labels ecocert france certified products

  • Aligned with COSMOS.
  • Ecocert is an independent and accredited certification body.
  • Ecocert inspects products by this specification and issues organic certification.
France – Cosmebio

guide read labels france cosmebio certified products

  • The French standard for organic and/or natural cosmetics
  • Aligned with COSMOS.
  • The Cosmebio label requires 95% minimum of natural ingredients and 95% minimum of organic ingredients.

guide read labels USDA organic certified products

  • USA standard for organic products.
  • The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), which regulates organic claims for foods and offers a seal/logo to those who meet its requirements.
Australia Certified Organic

guide read labels australian organic certified products

  • Australian standard for organic products
  • Free range
  • Cruelty-free
  • Pasture Fed
  • Socially responsible
  • Grown free of synthetic pesticides, GM hormones and antibiotics
Germany – BDIH

guide read labels bdih organic certified products

  • German standard for natural and/or organic cosmetics.
  • Natural raw materials such as plant oils, fats and waxes, herbal extracts and essential oils and aromatic materials from controlled biological cultivation or controlled biological wild collection.
  • In addition to the careful selection of raw materials, the ecological impact of each product plays an important role.
Belgium – Natrue

guide read labels natrue organic certified products

  • Belgian standard for natural and/or organic cosmetics
  • The NATRUE Label helps consumers identify products that are compliant with a reliable certification process by independent certification
Italy – ICEA

guide read labels icea organic certified products

  • ICEA, Istituto per la Certificazione Etica e Ambientale (Environmental and Ethical Certification Institute).  
  • ICEA together with BIOL Italia organizes Prizes, Events and Campaigns to raise awareness to spread and share culture, knowledge and values linked to Organic topics.


Other useful symbols to look out for


Symbol Description
Best before the end or expiry date expiry date symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • It’s a good idea to check this. Some organic products have a shorter expiry date simply because they don’t use chemicals to prolong their shelf life. This is OK, as long as you know how long you have to use it!  Sometimes instead of a date, there will be the symbol of a jar with a number inside it, this is how long you have to use the product once opened  
Recycle recycling symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • This symbol means you can recycle the packaging
Vegan USA  vegan symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • US-based organization certifying vegan products.
Vegan UK  uk vegan symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • UK-based organization certifying vegan products.
Cruelty-Free International Symbol for the Leaping Bunny Program cruelty-free international symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • CCIC (Cruelty-Free International)is a US-based organization that certifies products that have not been tested on animals nor contain ingredients tested on animals.
PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies Symbol PETA US cruelty-free symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • US-based organization that certifies products that have not been tested on animals, nor contain ingredients tested on animals.
Fairtrade fairtrade symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • UK-based organization certifying Fairtrade products.
Choose Cruelty-Free choose cruelty-free symbol full guide read labels certified products
  • Australian organization that certifies products that have not been tested on animal nor contain ingredients tested on animals.


Understand the terminology


Organic: to be labelled organic, the product must have passed thorough testing procedures via the various certification standards (see table above).

Natural: this term means that there are no artificial or synthetic ingredients. However, the ingredients are not ‘organic’.

Biodegradable: this means the ingredients in the product are capable of breaking down and being decomposed by bacteria or other organisms and therefore avoiding pollution and thus better for the environment.

Fair Trade: there are 10 principles of fair trade that must be abided by for a label to have the Fair Trade logo. 1 Opportunities for disadvantaged, small producers. 2. Transparency and accountability. 3 Fair Trade Practices. 4. Fair payment. 5. No Child Labour and No forced labour. 6. No discrimination, gender equity, freedom of association. 7. Good working conditions. 8. Capacity building. 9. Promote Fair Trade. 10. Respect for the environment.


Useful apps and websites to read the label of the products


Think Dirty app

This app is AMAZING. Plus it may save you so much time. Basically, you type in the name of the product you are looking at, and it gives a rating of between 0 (very clean) to 10 (full of chemicals). You can see quickly and easily which brands and products rate highly on there, and then adjust your product buying choices accordingly. You can also scan the barcode of products you already use to check their ratings.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) app

Another WONDERFUL app is the one of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This one is similar to the Think Dirty app. You scan a product and review its rating. This one also includes food as well as personal care products. Sometimes its helpful to have both to give yourself more chance of finding the product you are looking for.


Websites – Certified Organic Brand Directories

  • Kontrollierte Naturkosmetik gives you a link to ALL the brands which have been certified organic by BDIH
  • Natrue gives you a link to ALL the brands which have the NATRUE certification
  • Soil Association gives you a link to ALL of the skincare and makeup, health and wellbeing, pregnancy and baby and male grooming brands which are SOIL ASSOCIATION ORGANIC CERTIFIED.
  • Organic Consumers gives you a link to US brands which contain at least one USDA certified product in their range. This gives you a link to ALL the COSMOS certified cosmetic products. It is a big list!
  • MADE SAFE® certify that products are made with safe ingredients not known or suspected to harm human health. MADE SAFE certified products have been screened by scientists for known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxins, neurotoxins, behavioural toxins, flame retardants, heavy metals, high-risk pesticides, insecticides, toxic solvents, and harmful VOCs. Ingredients have been further examined by a chemist for bioaccumulation (builds up in human bodies), persistence (builds up in the environment), ecosystem harm, as well as for general and aquatic toxicity.

Check the ingredients list on the label of your products

Not all products are listed on the apps I mentioned, therefore it is helpful to have other places to look for guidance when it comes to reading the ingredients list. It is good to know that for all products, the ingredients list has to go in order from the greatest to the least amount present in the product. It is really helpful to know which ingredients are safer or more potentially harmful than others. Then once you know, you know for future label detecting! For example, some ingredient names SOUND as if they are full of chemicals, when actually they are not, so it is good to know these things.

A good way to check is to go to the Environmental Working Group- Skin Deep website which has so much valuable information on there. It tells you all about each ingredient, how harmful it may be, any concerns and things like that.

Another useful one is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website. Specifically, you should take a look at where you can learn about the top ingredients and contaminants to avoid based on research, and the types of products they’re found in.

Know which ingredients to avoid

If you have found products with the certified organic symbols, you hopefully should not find the following ingredients on the labels. However, if you are unable to access certified organic products and want to choose the best from the options you have, here is a list of ingredients that you really should try to avoid if possible. This brochure from EWG is a great start!

Parabens (Methyl/Ethyl/Propyl/Butylparaben)

Parabens can be identified on the label quite easily because their names all end in ‘paraben’. For example ethylparaben, or methylparaben. Parabens are made from petrochemicals and have been shown to disrupt hormones and therefore interfere with human nature’s delicate endocrine balance. It is better to reduce the number of products that contains parabens to minimize hormone disruption. For me personally, parabens were the first thing I looked out for on labels and cut out from my life because they mimic the estrogen hormone which I believe had a strong influence on my adenomyosis (a gynecological condition that can impact fertility). Parabens are used in cosmetic products to lengthen their shelf life.

What to look for – ‘PARABEN FREE’ on the label.

Phthalates (Often hidden under Fragrance/Parfum)

Phthalates are estrogen mimicking chemicals that can influence health and also fertility issues. They are used to make fragrances in products that last for long and can be found in many scented products such as nail varnish, perfume, candles, air fresheners, and hair sprays. On the label, you may see acronyms ending in ‘P’ such as MEP, DMP, DEHP, DBP, DEP. Usually, if a product is phthalate-free, it means that it hasn’t been chemically fragranced, which is a good sign!

What to look for – ‘PHTHALATE FREE’ on the label.


These are known as ‘trade secrets’ which means that companies don’t have to disclose what is in them. Potentially this means that there could be hundreds of chemicals used to make up the fragrance which doesn’t need to be disclosed. Best avoided unless clearly stated that the fragrance is from organic essential oils.

Any petrochemical derived ingredients or mineral oil (propylene glycol, PEG, petrolatum, mineral oil, PPG, petroleum jelly, paraffin wax)

Well because… Petrol? Near our skin? No thank you!

Sulphates (SLS/SLES)

Sulfates are referred to as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) on the ingredients label. They are surfactants, which means they attract oil and water and are therefore found in things that foam such as shampoos, cleansers, hand soaps, household cleaning products etc. SLS is known to be a skin irritant, plus it is toxic to fish.

Synthetic colourants and fragrances (look out for FD&C +Name and Number, e.g. FD&C Red No 40)


Sustainable products for our health and the environment

Not only is it important to understand the impact of the ingredients in the products on our skin and home, but we should also be thinking about the impact of using products on the environment.

The good news is that there is a Sustainable Cosmetics Summit, which aims to encourage sustainability in the beauty industry by bringing together key stakeholders and debate major issues in a high-level forum 🙂

Each edition will bring together key stakeholders in the beauty industry, including cosmetic manufacturers, ingredient & raw material suppliers, retailers & distributors, industry organisations & certification agencies, researchers & academics and investors. Here is hoping that awareness will be raised and more opportunities will arise for sustainable products!


I hope you enjoyed reading my first blog post. Check out my Instagram page @thelabeldetective for more.

PS… Always read the label! x


Hey hey!! Didn’t you find this guide form our label detective amazing? Any questions about this? Comment below to share your experience on reading labels with our good family!

ecolabels around the world customlabel

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Catherine Day

Catherine is the most researcher blogger of our collaborators. Her story started when she learned she was suffering from a condition called Adenomyosis, which had implications for her to become a mum. She became like a detective on cosmetics and cleaning products to be paraben, chemical and toxin FREE. She changed her lifestyle on the products and brands she was using, improved her diet, engaged in mindfulness. Now, she is the mother of the most beautiful baby-girl! Her message to you is to don't give up hope and always #readthelabel ?@thelabeldetective

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