Step 1. Pick up the bottle
Step 2. Read it
Seems simple enough, right? But, of course, we all know it isn’t that easy. It might feel like you need a degree in Klingon to decipher some of the names you’ll find on a typical label. Here, we’ll break down some easy dos and don’ts when choosing a product - some good rules-of-thumb for how to read skin care ingredients.
If you want to be next-level about your skincare, you can’t rely on the names or descriptions of products provided by skincare companies. Getting to know your skin and arming yourself with some basic know-how will enable you to sniff out the B.S. while giving your skin the right ingredients for specific needs. This is especially important because the FDA doesn’t regulate certain claims like “hypoallergenic,” “noncomedogenic,” “anti-aging,” “clinically proven,” or “dermatologist tested.” So, really, you should take these claims as a grain of salt.
Why should I care about skincare ingredients?
We each have unique wants and needs when it comes to our skin. We rely on skincare companies to help us achieve our skincare goals and often make these decisions based on recommendations, word-of-mouth, and some hasty testing in-store. A cursory glance at a skincare product that is touted for being animal-friendly or hypoallergenic might make it seem like you’re choosing something in line with your values - but not doing your research could lead to disappointment.
- Cruelty-free - A “cruelty-free” claim can be made by any company, regardless of whether their product includes ingredients that have been tested on animals. This is because there are no governing laws around this phrasing.
- Hypoallergenic - Hypoallergenic is not a regulated claim in skincare and does not ensure that a skincare product will not cause an allergic reaction. Instead, all it means is that a product is “less likely” to cause an allergic reaction than other products. For this reason, it’s best to know what irritates your skin and to avoid these ingredients specifically. Some common ones: essential oils, dye, parabens, and sulfates.
- Effectiveness - As a shopper, you might need your product to be vegan, cruelty-free, or hypoallergenic. But there are things you want, too. You want skincare ingredients that really work. Claims like “anti-aging” or “acne-fighting” might seem attractive, but as we have all learned through trial and error, these claims don’t always translate to results. At least, not in the US - these claims need to be proven to be used in the EU, Korea, and other countries. The same goes for “all-natural” or “organic” products. In order to effectively care for your skin, it’s important to understand which ingredients work for your skin.
Does order matter on the ingredients label?
Similar to food labels, ingredients on skincare labels are listed in order of their concentration from highest (first) to lowest (last.) The first five ingredients or so are typically the bulk of the formula and usually include water and glycerin.
If a product contains “active ingredients,” a term which is defined by the FDA as any over-the-counter drug ingredient, then the company is required to provide the percentage of those ingredients. An active ingredient is one that has been approved by the FDA to perform a specific function for a specific condition - e.g. benzoyl peroxide to treat acne.
Note: In the U.S., any ingredient that makes up less than 1% of the formula can be re-ordered. This usually includes colorants, fragrances, and preservatives.
What is parfum in skin care? (or all these ingredients that I can’t pronounce)
Let’s clear something up - just because an ingredient has a long, hard-to-pronounce name doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. In general, if you see ingredients you don’t know it’s best to Google them or consult a professional. Here are a few good common ingredients to know.
First, you’ll often see water listed as one of the main ingredients. Easy enough. Water is used as a solvent for other ingredients - meaning it dissolves them. Only water that is free of toxins, pollutants, and microbes can be used in skincare and personal cosmetics in the US. Often listed as distilled water, purified water, and aqua.
Another common ingredient is preservatives. Preservatives help prevent bacteria growth or mold growth within your skincare products. Preservatives include parabens, phenoxyethanol, and ethylhexylglycerin.
Fragrance, which can be identified as “fragrance,” “perfume,” or “parfum,” is also found in many products. Even products that are labeled “unscented” can have fragrance. Fragrance is not necessarily a single ingredient - it can be made up of many components. It’s legal to add masking fragrance to a formula without listing it on the label, so if you have sensitive skin be sure to do your research to understand what components make up the fragrance. Even natural fragrance can be irritating as essential oils tend to highly volatile.
What skincare ingredients to avoid?
This list will be different for everyone depending on your individual needs and values. A general list of some ingredients to avoid include:
- Parabens: Parabens are preservatives that keep bacteria and other microbes out of your favorite products, but have also been linked in interfering with hormones (like estrogen.)
- Sulfates (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate): Sulfates are known to be skin irritants. They can strip skin of its natural oils which can cause dryness and irritation.
- Polyethylene Glycol (PEG): PEGs are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in skincare products as thickeners, solvents, and softeners. They should be avoided because they can contain problematic impurities, byproducts of the manufacturing process, that can irritate skin.
- Formaldehyde: You won’t see “formaldehyde” listed as an ingredient, since it’s a colorless, odorless gas. Instead, look out for formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like DMDM hydantoin and imidazolidinyl urea which have been known to irritate skin.
- Essential Oils: Most essential oils contain up to 60 different substances. Some of these are known to be highly irritating - for example, fragrance ingredients like limonene, citronellol, eugenol, and linalool.
- Phthalates: Like parabens, some studies have shown that phthalates (pronounced tha-lates) may interact with hormones. Be
Other tips to decode your ingredients label
Armed with the info above, you should be able to grasp a basic understanding of what you see listed on the labels of your favorite skincare products. But this is an ongoing process! If you don’t know an ingredient, Google it. Some legitimate sources to check are NIH (https://www.nih.gov/) and the FDA’s Cosmetic Ingredient Review (https://www.cir-safety.org/).
While label-reading is great (and recommended!), a shortcut is to find a boutique or brand that you trust and stick with their products. If you find businesses with like-minded values, you can eliminate some of the product-by-product research.
If you have any questions, always be sure to consult a professional.