Skin Tip 002: How to Read a Product Label (for beginners)

Editor: Alexandria Taliaferro, @clapbacksandcontours

Skin Type: Combination

Skin Concerns: Texture, Hyperpigmentation

L-Ascorbic Acid. Phenoxyethanol. Lactococcus Ferment Lysate. These words may sound super unfamiliar and confusing at first, but after taking a look at the ingredient labels on any of the products on your bathroom counter, you’ll quickly realize that these are the scientific names for some fairly common ingredients found in many skincare and cosmetics products on the market today. Getting better acquainted with the clinical terms for different ingredients and the order that they’re listed in on product labels is the best way to truly understand what you’re putting on your skin, and which ingredients you’d like to avoid. Whether you’re a skincare pro or an upstart novice, keep reading for my handy-dandy guide to navigating the world of skincare product labels and some quick lessons on the best questions to ask when shopping for skincare.

Concentration Levels

Before we can discuss the ingredients on the labels, we have to discuss how to read the labels themselves. Generally speaking, product manufacturers list their product ingredients in descending order of concentration. In other words, the higher up an ingredient is on the ingredient list, the more there is of it within the product itself. While the majority of skincare companies will not disclose exact ingredient percentages due to concerns about formula copyrights and unlawful reconstitution efforts, it’s safe to assume that any component listed after the first five ingredients on a label is included in the product in a percentage of 1% or less. But don’t disregard these additional components as being less effective. Many ingredients like antioxidants, exfoliating acids (like AHAs and BHAs), and collagen-boosting peptides are perfectly effective in smaller doses – some of them are even more effective in smaller percentages than they would be in larger ones.

Also, be sure to take note of the difference between “active” ingredients – those approved by the FDA to perform specific functions for specific conditions – and “inactive” ingredients – those that provide support for the active ingredients or lend cosmetic benefits like hydration. Active ingredients will always be listed separately from inactive ingredients with their official percentages notated accordingly. This is a quick and efficient way to get a better understanding of the main components of the product you’re using without having to delve into the more complex segment of the product label.

Nomenclature

For the most part, there are two types of ingredient naming systems: Latin text and multi-syllabic phrasing. Botanicals are usually listed under the Latin translation of the plant or plant part with an added label of “extract” or “oil” at the end – for example, Cucmis Sativus Extract to refer to Cucumber Extract – while chemicals and chemical compounds, both natural and synthetic, are listed under those longer words that we often find difficult to pronounce – like Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate to refer to an oil soluble form of Vitamin C. Luckily, the majority of these ingredients will often have a more recognizable English translation of the word attached in parentheses somewhere towards the ends of their listings, which is super helpful for the untrained eye.

In addition to these more complex ingredient names, it’s also important to understand what the more innocuous words on your product labels mean. Water, whether it’s distilled, deionized, or demineralized, will always be referred to by its common names: Water, Eau, or Aqua. Fragrance, or Parfum or Aroma, refers to any additives (synthetic or natural) used specifically to add scent to a product. Because of a complex labeling law passed in the early 1970’s, companies are not required to disclose the chemical components of their fragrance additives. In other words, Fragrance is actually an umbrella term that could include a wide variety of ingredients to which the buyer will never be privy – and because it’s completely legal to add masking fragrance to a product formula, even products labeled as “unscented” can have fragrance included in their formula. Because of this, it’s important to read ingredient labels thoroughly and, if you’re allergic to or sensitive to fragrance, to always patch test prior to use (or avoid fragranced products entirely).

If you’re still feeling a bit unsure about which words mean what, head to Biossance’s website to check out their amazingly robust (and completely free!) Skincare Ingredient Library for a detailed list of ingredient names and uses.

Preservatives

In order to make skincare products shelf stable, manufacturers incorporate preservatives (some all-natural, and some man-made) into their products to extend their shelf life and longevity. As you’re navigating the world of skincare, it’s important to become familiar with the various types of preservatives, and to decide for yourself which ones you do or do not want applied to your skin.

The most commonly used ingredients that act as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products are Parabens, a group of low-cost synthetically engineered materials that are highly effective in preventing product spoilage. While the science is still a bit inconclusive, some recent studies have shown that high concentrations of parabens have the potential to accumulate in the body over time and appear to increase the proliferation of existing cancer cells within the body. Because of this, many beauty brands have spent the past few years working double time to rid their products of parabens, opting to utilize other preservative methods to enhance the shelf life and safety of their products. If you’re also interested in avoiding paraben-laced products, be sure to steer clear of any chemical compounds listed as Methyl-, Isobutyl-, Propyl-, or Benzyl-parabens.

Another well-known preservative is Phenoxyethanol, a glycol ether that is great at preventing yeast, bacteria, and mold growth. Often considered a milder alternative to other, more traditional preservatives, phenoxyethanol can be found in many broad-spectrum protection products, like sunscreens and SPF-based moisturizers. Unlike most parabens, phenoxyethanol is certified safe by the European Union, and has global approval for use in all cosmetic products in concentrations up to 1%.

Though they are often made synthetically for the purpose of skincare, organic acids like Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, and P-Anisic Acid are considered “natural alternatives” to the previous preservatives listed above. These organic acids, derived mostly from fruits and vegetables, require much higher use levels for them to be effective against fungi proliferation, making products that include them as preservatives significantly more expensive than products without them. Additionally, these types of preservatives will only be found in water-based skincare and cosmetics, as they require an aqueous base to properly perform.

We can’t talk about preservatives without addressing the elephant in the room – Formaldehyde. While it’s fairly common knowledge that this cancer-causing carcinogen is unsafe to breathe in or ingest in its gaseous form, there is very little science on or regulation surrounding Formalin, the aqueous form of the substance, or formaldehyde releasers that are occasionally blended into cosmetic and personal care products as preservatives. Because of its classification by the EPA as a carcinogen, most consumer groups agree that there is no acceptable level of formaldehyde in products. Looking to avoid formaldehydes? Turn down any products that include any of the following terms in their ingredient lists: DMDM Hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Diazolidinyl Urea, Quaternium-15, Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol ), 5-Bromo-5-Nitro, 1,3-Dioxane, Hydroxymethylglycinate.

Armed with this information, you’ll be a skincare product label pro in no time – but in the off chance that you’re still looking for a bit more advice, head to Skin Deep, a beauty and cosmetics database created by Environmental Working Group (a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment) that provides consumers with the itemized profiles of thousands of products, brands, and manufacturers and gives detailed write-ups on their potential hazards and health concerns.

1 comment

Natalie

This is so helpful!!! Thanks for breaking it down in an accessible way!

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