When you dish out your hard-earned dollars at the cosmetic counter, you’re putting your faith in that mask, cream, serum, or scrub to deliver the results promised, without damaging side effects. More and more women—some studies put the percentage as high as 73 percent—are choosing products labeled natural so they can better understand what they’re introducing into their bodies. They also hope to avoid mystery ingredients with names so complex that they can’t even pronounce them.

The problem with this approach is that the word natural, when applied to beauty products, isn’t nearly as transparent as it might seem. Manufacturers can market their products as natural when they contain one or two natural ingredients but are mostly made up of synthetic chemicals. While you can certainly find effective and honest, all-natural beauty products and skincare lines with some careful research, it’s all too easy to follow the bold, eco-friendly headline on the package and ignore small-print ingredient lists that read like a chemistry textbook. Here are a few red flags to watch out for on your way to a beauty routine that’s truly 100-percent natural.

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1. The Ingredients Don’t Look Natural

The unfortunate reality is that in the beauty industry, the word natural is an unregulated marketing term that legally carries no specific meaning. Lightly regulated, 80-year-old laws allow cosmetics to go on the market without any checks and balances. A sort of honor system guides formulation, branding, and manufacturing, leaving it up to manufacturers to be honest about the ingredients they’re using. This leaves you to do your own sleuthing to determine just how your skincare products are made. There isn’t a specific definition for what qualifies as a synthetic ingredient, which makes things even more confusing. Products can claim to be all-natural and still contain substances that are far from it. In fact, companies can exclude ingredients entirely by claiming they are part of their “secret” formula.

2. Ingredients Look Natural, But Not Healthy

Read the label to be sure that dangerous heavy metals aren’t in your cosmetics.

Raphael Lovaski

We’re a long way from the days when companies marketed arsenic wafers for a pure complexion, but you’ll still find ingredients that are natural but not the best choice for your health. Heavy metals are used in trace amounts in many cosmetics, so it’s good practice to be on the lookout for lead, chromium, cadmium, aluminum, manganese, cobalt, mercury, and nickel in lipstick, eye shadow, blush, and powders.

3. You Get More Than a Rosy Glow

If, over the course of the first few days of using a new product, you find yourself breaking out, experiencing excessive dryness, or developing other symptoms of skin irritation, stop using it and take a closer look at the intended effects the ingredients are supposed to have on your skin. The problem could be that you’re using too much, the potency is too high, or you’re hypersensitive to one or more of the ingredients.

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4. Understanding the Ingredients Requires a Ph.D.

When you look for the ingredient list, you should be able to find it on the container, packaging, or label. You shouldn’t have to go online to look it up, and a quick review should tell you if the product is genuinely natural, especially with some practice. As a general rule, you want fewer ingredients. Research complex names to determine if they’re natural or synthetic, keeping in mind that companies will use Latin names for recognizable products based on the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients (INCI). Examples would be Butyrospermum Parkii listed for shea butter or Melaleuca Alternifolia listed for tea tree oil. Some companies will note an ingredient is natural to distinguish it from similar versions that are replicated in a lab—another indication of quality, natural products.

5. Natural Ingredients Are at the End of the List

Look for natural ingredients at the top of the list.

Brooke Lark

Though not necessarily a deal-breaker, it’s important to be aware that ingredients are typically listed in the order of greatest concentration. If you’re hoping to lock in moisture with coconut oil butter or clear up blemishes with jojoba seed oil, look for these ingredients to be listed first.

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6. The Key Qualifiers Are Missing

Along with natural, all-natural, and 100-percent natural, it’s a good sign that a manufacturer is following ethical practices when you see a few other qualifiers on the packaging. Look for products that are vegan, GMO-free, eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and organic. Seeing paraben-free, non-toxic, and synthetic fragrance-free on the label is even better.

7. Too Much Unnecessary Stuff

Once you’re used to digging into ingredient lists, you’ll become an expert at weeding out synthetic ingredients like parabens and formaldehyde used to extend product shelf life, and diethanolamine, which is used to make products foamy and creamy. Natural products generally don’t last as long, but who really wants to use three-year-old moisturizer? Make sure you note the shelf life of your natural skincare products and use them up before the expiration date.

If all-natural, non-toxic, and cruelty-free products are important to you, consider the offerings of VictoriaLand Beauty. Its products use time-tested, natural wonders—essential oils from plants, fruit and nut oils, active botanical extracts—that leave the skin healthy and good-to-go with or without makeup. For those concerned about what goes on their skin, it’s the perfect choice.

Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with Victorialand Beauty.

Featured image provided by Chris Jarvis