I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked about skincare labels and how to differentiate between the ‛good’ and ‛bad’ ingredients a product contains. The truth is, pharmacies and stores have so many products stacked on their shelves, making it really difficult for you to stay focused and shop comfortably. For most of us identifying which products are worth the big bucks, needs a bit of label decoding. Sounds scary? Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Here’s how you can read skincare ingredients labels to help make your next trip to the store a breeze!
Before we start this series, I want to reassure you, it is completely normal to feel overwhelmed when you first start reading or inspecting skincare labels. Even for some of us with science degrees, we still need to refresh our knowledge and stay updated with all the new chemical-sounding ingredients and medicines, in my case.
So to be fair, if on closer inspection of product labels, you feel like you’re reading a foreign language excerpt, you’re not alone.
Why can’t I pronounce most of the ingredients?
Well, all ingredients in a cosmetic must be declared on the label and should be listed using a system called the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, otherwise known as INCI (pronounced ‘inky’).
This makes it a lot easier for both beauty brands as well as the consumers — since this framework is globally adapted and ingredients are listed based on scientific nomenclature. This means, regardless of where you purchase your product (Dubai, France or the US), you’ll still be able read and decipher the labels the same way you did it back home.
Do skincare labels follow an order, or a pattern?
Yes, it does. All the ingredients are listed in order of their concentrations. This means the first four or five ingredients will always form the bulk of the formula. As an example, please refer to the Neals Yard Remedies’ product label (insert). In this moisturizer, the first ingredient listed is aqua, or water.
This means water makes up for 75%–90% of the product, and acts as the main base for your formula. After that, the next four ingredients are typically included at concentrations between 3%–5%. Alternatively, for ingredients that make up for less than 1 percent of the formula, the manufacturer can choose to list them in any given order.
Basically, ingredients with highest percentages are always listed first. This means the concentration will decrease as you go down the list.
Does this mean, most antioxidant formulations are too weak to be effective?
Not necessarily. Some actives are potent even in small doses, or in some instances, work alongside other actives and function as a synergistic ingredient. To help explain this better we’ll use the example of Skinceuticals’ CE Feruilic.
In this serum, while 15% L-ascorbic acid is the key ingredient, the formulation also contains 1% alpha tocopherol and 0.5% ferulic acid — their role; equally important. Aside from the antioxidant benefits of both compounds, their addition, albeit in seemingly low concentrations, stabilizes the formulation and forms a synergy with the vitamin C.
So, remember, it’s not always bad to have an ingredient in low concentration. Don’t overlook the potency of these actives and its role in the formulation.
Do I need to know all the complicated chemical-sounding ingredients?
Are you confused with what ingredients you should look for, and which ones to avoid? To help you look up different skincare ingredients, you can rely on resourceful websites such as the CosIng database, helmed by the European Commission. I also like Paula’s Choice Ingredient Dictionary, which is a helpful guide if you want to learn more about the skincare ingredients, its different categories and uses in cosmetics.
What do all these chemicals do? How can I even read skincare ingredients labels?
Yes, I hear you. INCI names are often chemical descriptors and it may sound very unfamiliar for some of us. You don’t have to know all the ingredients, instead just keep an eye on some common multi-tasking ingredients as well as a few of the known irritants, offenders or cancer-causing ingredients.
Below, you can find some of commonly used vitamins in skincare formulations, with their INCI names.
Why does my cream contain so many ingredients?
Before we discuss this, it is important to understand that a typical formulation contains both actives and in-actives. Active ingredients are used in smaller concentrations than those that make up the bulk of the formula (the non-actives). This is why they are usually indexed in the second half of the list.
From regulation and Food and Drug Authority (FDA) perspective, if the cosmetic brand does not make any medical claim, they don’t have to list their active vs. inactive ingredients separately on the label. Which is why you’ll find all the ingredients clustered in one section of the label.
Other in-active ingredients, or additives used in cosmetic preparations include: water, emulsifiers, preservatives, thickeners, moisturisers, colours and fragrances.
Just by looking at an INCI list, you won’t be able to know the exact formula and concentration of active ingredients in that product. What it does is, it gives you an overall picture of how much of each ingredient goes into your product.
Learning how to read skincare ingredients labels
On closer inspection, most skincare labels contain similar information and much of this is a legal requirement. Some differences may exist between organic vs. non-organic product labels, such as the presence of organic accreditation symbols (USDA certified, soil association approved) or other regulatory bodies.
Similarly, some companies mark essential oils in their labels with an asterisk or in italics, to help you identify these ingredients in case of any known allergies or skin sensitivities.
Information printed on the label
- Brand name and product name [usually listed in the front]
- INCI list [of all the ingredients in descending order of concentration]
- Product weight or volume [net contents in grams]
- Usage directions
- Storage directions
- Any required warning labels
- Manufacturer name and details
- Symbols [cruelty-free, vegan, organic]
- Essential oils [indicated in italics]
- Expiry date or period after opening [PAO]
Note: All colour additives used in the formulation are denoted by their respective Colour Index (CI) Number. The CI index assigns a unique code to each colour as part of an international naming system. For example, “CI 15580” is a red coloured cosmetic colorant commonly used in lipsticks.
‘Period after opening’, refers to the time the product is deemed safe for use once it is opened. Sometimes this can be denoted in number of months, e.g. 12M. That means you can use the product for 12 months after opening it.
Ingredients to look out for
Some ingredients that are commonly used in cosmetic formulations are known irritants. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your skin will react to them, but if you’re using a product with several irritants, then the potential for a skin reaction is higher.
Alcohol: simpler form of alcohols such as ethanol, methanol and alcohol denat can cause dryness and should be avoided. Fatty alcohols on the other hand, such as cetyl or stearyl — help stabilize emulsions and are considered safe for your skin.
Fragrances: to make things simpler, look for the word ‘parfum’ on the ingredients list. This can get tricky though, sometimes the fragrance is extracted from natural ingredients, or scented essential oils. In such instances, you’ll find it listed on the label as either natural fragrance or the name of the essential oil, such as limonene or geraniol.
Agreeably, not everyone is sensitive to fragranced products, but if you have sensitive skin, take note. Overall, whenever you’re given the choice, it is recommended that you opt for fragrance-free preparations.
Detergents or surfactants: ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are also known triggers for dry and sensitive skin types. While sodium laureth sulfate is not as irritating as SLS, it is still best to avoid it.
Preservatives: only needed in small concentrations, these are spotted at the end of the ingredients list. Here are some of the ones we’ve flagged. Among them, benzyl alcohol, triclosan, parabens (flagged as a possible hormone disruptor) and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.
I hope this article has given you some pointers on how to read skincare ingredient labels. To help you further, it is recommended that you make some time to learn a few of the common multi-tasking ingredients, like vitamin C and niacinamide. Knowing their INCI names and role in formulation will help you select the right product for your skin type.
Alternatively, you can consult your dermatologist for their expert opinion, or opt for products with fewer ingredients. Ultimately, it all comes down to your preference and budget.
Did you find this useful? Let me know in the comments below. And you could check out more related topics here.