100% natural? Scientifically proven? Ignore what’s written on the front of a product, in magazines or on websites, unless you want to unnecessarily spend a lot of money on catchy phrases and bold statements alone.
What makes a moisturizer a moisturizer and what ingredients really help with anti-aging? You will never find out just by reading the front of a product. So may I direct your attention to the ingredients lists in the back instead?
Although ingredients lists are not always 100% conclusive or accurate, the ingredients of a skin care product still give you a better idea of its performance, and enable you to more effectively compare different brands both low and high end. This will save you a whole lot of money in the long run, and helps you to make more informed, and possibly better decisions.
So here is how you can read an ingredients list.
#1: Focus on the first five ingredients
Ingredients are usually listed in order of highest to lowest concentrations. So what’s at the top of the list is what counts in a product.
Some ingredients, such as Retinol, are potent even at super low percentages starting from 0.01%.
Other ingredients, such as antioxidants, work in synergy and together still yield considerable results although they may each be present only in small amounts.
And still other ingredients, such as fragrance, can sensitize or cause irritations or allergies in any quantity, too.
#2: But don’t forget the water
Colin’s Beauty Pages, written by a cosmetic and pharmaceutical scientist, listed Just how much water is in your personal care products:
- 0% – Lip balms/lipsticks
- 30% – Heavy duty creams for dry skin
- 50% – Hand creams
- 60% – Face creams
- 70% – Lotions
- 85% – Shampoos and conditioners
- 95% – Gels and toners
This gives you a good rule of thumb as to what textures likely contain what amount of water.
#3: The basic composition of skin care products
Now that you know that the greater part of your skin care products is basically just plain water, don’t trust an ingredients list that tries to tell you otherwise!
(Also see #6 ↓)
Then here are roughly what give specific product categories their most common characteristics.
To moisturize, replenish and visibly plump up skin, moisturizing products should contain both humectants (i.e. Glycerin) as well as emollients and occlusives (i.e. mineral or plant oils).
All skin types need both humectants and emollients/occlusives equally. But oily skin types rather lack water = humectants, while dry skin types also lack in oils = emollients/occlusives. So knowing this, choose your moisturizing products accordingly.
The “active” ingredients in cleansers and shampoos are surfactants (i.e. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate).
[I made a list of harsh as well as mild(er) surfactants here.]
And sunscreen isn’t sunscreen without sunscreen agents (i.e. Avobenzone).
[skinacea.com has a chart of sunscreen filters here.]
Of course, most skin care products nowadays do more than just one job. Your moisturizer could be moisturizing and have SPF. Or your cleanser could be cleansing and replenish the skin with moisture.
On the other hand, toners, serums, essences or masks are sometimes assigned only one job – for example, to attract and bind moisture, soothe the skin, or reverse or prevent signs of aging and sun damage. Then these will (ideally) come equipped with exactly the ingredients up for that specific task, and barely any others.
Last but not least, emulsifiers, solvents, texturizing and slip agents, preservatives and pH-adjusters are necessary in all beauty products to make them feel and apply like they do, while also preventing mold and bacteria growth.
#4: Effective skin care add-ons
If you want something to soothe your skin, look for ingredients such as Aloe Vera or Betaine, for example, and avoid anything that potentially irritates skin.
If you have oily, acne-prone skin, again, avoid anything that potentially irritates your skin, and look for products with BHA.
If you want skin care that reverses or prevents sun damage and thus signs of aging, or if you want to rejuvenate dull, lackluster skin, look for these:
- antioxidants (i.e. plant extracts or Vitamin E): prevent and reverse damage from free radicals and UV rays; the more, the better!
- chemical exfoliants, such as AHA and BHA: slough off dead skin cells and thus rejuvenate skin, lessen fine lines, improve skin tone and texture, lighten hyper-pigmentation and post-acne marks, stimulate new cell growth
- Vitamin C: antioxidant, prevents and reverses damage from free radicals and UV rays, for example brown spots, can exfoliate the skin at a pH between 2 – 3.5, boost collagen production, reduce inflammation
- Vitamin A derivatives = Retinol or Retinoids: antioxidants and effective cell-communicating ingredients, prevent and reverse damage from free radicals and UV rays, thus eliminating fine lines and brown spots, increases collagen production
- Niacinamide = also Nicotinamide or Vitamin B3: improves elasticity, evens out and brightens skin tone, increases ceramide and free fatty acid levels in skin, prevents skin from losing water content, thus enhancing the skin’s barrier function
- Ceramides: make up an integral part of our skin’s natural lipid barrier, and topical application of Ceramides can help replenish it to prevent moisture loss and irritation to make skin appear more firm and younger
- Hyaluronic Acid: effective humectant holds 1000 times its weight in water, plumps up skin making it appear more even – albeit only temporarily
These ingredients have been repeatedly proven to be effective and beneficial for the skin by scientific studies and reproducible evidence. But still, don’t expect miracles or immediate results overnight. Some things take time.
Last but not least,
- Peptides: humectants with theoretical cell-communicating ability; note: although research is promising, the concrete effects of Peptides as topical treatments have not yet been fully verified
#5: Avoid these no-go ingredients
The first five ingredients in a skin care product are likely to make the biggest difference. You should, however, still scan the rest of the ingredients list in order to avoid any of the following ingredients:
- Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate
- Sodium Myreth Sulfate
- Cocamidopropyl Betaine
- Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate
- Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate
- Sodium Coco Sulfate
(Although a cocktail of various surfactants together as well as a skin-friendly pH can increase the mildness of any surfactant, according to cosmetic chemist Stephen Ko.)
- Alcohol denat./denatured
- SD Alcohol
- Polyvinyl Alcohol
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- Benzyl Alcohol
Fragrances, including essential oils
- Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone
(according to EU cosmetics regulations)
- Tree moss
- Bitter orange
- Melissa or lemon balm
Photo-toxic essential oils
- Angelica Root Essential Oil
- Bitter Orange
- Fig Leaf Absolute
- Mandarin Leaf
In addition, Paula’s Choice has a good list of common skin care ingredients to avoid, too.
Note that none of these lists are conclusive, and please always factor in your individual allergies or sensitivities when looking for skin care products!
#6: Natural? Organic? Stay woke!!
“Most of the ‘natural’ sounding ingredients are used at extremely low levels,” and “put in formulas for claims purposes only. […] We even have a term in the industry for these raw materials: ‘Claims Ingredients.’ […]
“To give you an idea, Chamomile extract is typically sold to cosmetic manufacturers as a 1% solution. That means in a 3 ounce sample (~100 g) of the raw material, only 1 g comes from the chamomile plant. But it gets even worse. When formulators create a shampoo or conditioner with this raw material, they typically use less than 0.1%. So, if you were using an 8 ounce bottle of shampoo (~226 g) there is only 0.0023 g of actual Chamomile plant in the bottle.
“It’s difficult to picture, but 0.0023 grams would be about the equivalent of putting a single drop of chamomile in a 5 gallon bucket of water.“
The author admits that this might be difficult to believe, but that it is the truth.
“I really deeply dislike it when extracts, which typically are not more than 1% in content within the product are listed at the top. I have learned to completely ignore the extract list and just read it as water.“
She points out that especially when the claims suggest a product was more “concentrated” because it supposedly “does not” contain water, but lists extracts at the top instead, you should be suspicious.
In fact, outright claims of this nature or even re-arranging your INCI list to imply such a claim point to “improper labeling,” according to The Beauty Brains.
So bottomline: Read extracts as water.
Although the antioxidants in the plant extracts may still be effective if there are enough of them in a product together.
(See #1 again ↑)
But here’s yet another thing about “natural” beauty products.
Some of their ingredients lists are strangely vocal about what their specific ingredients are made from.
“Organic alcohol derived from sugarcane juice,” they’ll say, or “vegetable Glycerin,” or “coconut derived Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.”
But that’s just sugarcoating.
Alcohol is alcohol and sulfates are sulfates – regardless of what they’ve originally been derived from. Distracting from the facts is also “greenwashing” your product.
#7: Helpful websites and sources
To make things easier for you in the beginning, I recommend looking up your products on cosdna.com. The website will return a basic cosmetic ingredients analysis which tells you the primary function of each ingredient in the product, as well as its acne and irritation potential.
If you want to know more, Google the ingredients you’re curious about.
The best sources on ingredients, in my personal opinion, are
- Paula’s Choice Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary
- Truth in Aging
- The Beauty Brains
- Kind of Stephen
- Colin’s Beauty Pages
However, if none of these websites or blogs have any infos on your ingredient, read whatever coherent info is available. What you want to know is whether something has been found to be
- toxic for humans in the amounts commonly used in cosmetics?
- if you are acne-prone: is it comedogenic = does it clog pores?
Stay tuned for a follow-up post, where I will post my current skin care wishlist and explain how I read the ingredients lists to pick each of the products. Until then, have fun reading the ingredients lists of your own beauty products today, and see if you can already apply some of my tips!