Skincare ingredient labels - your 'speed guide' to decoding them
Updated: May 13
I'm a sucker for cool packaging. Whether it's a Tiffany Blue box, the muted packaging on a Jo Malone candle, or a screaming yellow shopping bag from Selfridges London, I adore a well-designed brand that takes shape in how products appear on the shelf, extends to the product inside and impacts how I feel about myself as I stride out of a shop toting my new find.
Beautifully designed packaging can convey so much about the product itself and the promise a product makes. And when the outside promises are met with a product that delivers on those promises, I'm sold!
But there's an exception to this rule; skincare. Gone are the days when I'm impressed with the packaging of serums, cleansers, and creams. Don't get me wrong, they need to be air-tight, light-shielding, hygienic, and not unpleasant to look at. But what matters so much more are the contents of that packaging - the ingredients. Because skincare promises are empty if there isn't a scientific basis for why those ingredients are on the list. And in the bottle.
I get it - it can be tricky to take the time to look at the back of packaging, (if you're like me, get out your 'readers') and break that marketing spell for the two minutes it takes to decipher the product ingredients. But this time is so well spent. Here are a few tips for getting started on your way toward becoming an ingredient sleuth (and in doing so, making sure your money is spent on skincare that delivers results.)
1. Look at the top 5-8 ingredients.
By law, for products sold in most of the world, ingredients must be listed in order of strength from top to bottom (until the ingredients reach 1% or less-see below). So your top 5-8 ingredients are the ones most likely filling up most of the bottle. It isn't unusual to have water/aqua, aloe vera juice, hyaluronic acid, and other familiar ingredients at the very top.
The very first thing I do is check those first several ingredients. What IS there is as important as what is NOT there. Look for your active ingredients-what does the product promise to do? Are there ingredients in those top 5-8 that can achieve that? Are there any ingredients in those first 8 that might irritate or dry your skin without contributing to the goal? Have a look at my Active Skincare Ingredients post to learn more about which actives are best suited for which tasks.
There are exceptions to this rule of course but often just assessing the top 8 ingredients can give you an idea of potency and irritability.
2. Look for marker ingredients
While companies are legally obliged to list ingredients, they're not accountable to tell us the relative percentage of contents in the bottle. So when a serum lists its star ingredient as 'Vitamin C', how do you know whether it contains 15% or 0.5%? Well, you don't (unless you contact the company - which I'm known to do when it really matters!!). But a trick is to look for 'marker ingredients' in skincare.
(Phenocyethanol and xanthan gum, for example, worldwide need to be under 1%).
Know these two things: ingredients are listed in descending order, and the percentage of certain ingredients gives us a "marker" in the ingredient deck. See below-phenoxyethanol is allowed no greater than 1%. Everything after that on the deck is less than 1%. It is helpful in assessing whether or not a good ingredient is really contributing to the formula or, conversely, how much a bad ingredient might impact the skin. I have found exceptions to this rule, and when that has happened I reach out to the company for clarity. While companies need to list items in order of volume at the top of the ingredient stack, once we've hit 1% those ingredients can be listed in random order. Below is an example of a company that's listed all the ingredients AFTER the phenoxyethanol (which is capped at 1%) in random order (no longer descending) because of their minute amounts (all under 1% of course). To me this is incidental. The main thing is to assess the ingredients prior to in order to get a feel for what ingredients are most prominent in the product.
Note: this "Dragon's Blood Hyaluronic Shot' contains neither dragon's blood (a.k.a Croton Lechleri Resin Extract) nor Hyaluronic Acid in amounts above 1%. In fact, the only two ingredients that it DOES contain in amounts over 1% are water and castor oil. I'd leave this product on the shelf!
3. Look for “fragrance” and then recognize other fragrance ingredients
Let me not beat around the bush on this one. Skincare is better without fragrance. Fragrances are added to skincare by the executives at big skincare companies who think we women need them to smell good to use them. We know they're wrong. They're learning that they're wrong (things are changing!) Yet I still occasionally bump into otherwise FABULOUS products that have added fragrance. It drives me nuts!! Some tips on how to find your way through the 'fragrance labyrith':
A. Know why it matters.
What's the big deal anyway? Fragrance/fragrance ingredients are sensitizers. What may not bother you and your skin may do just that over time with repeated use. Both synthetic fragrances and essential oils emit a range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOC's convert the fragrance compounds into other chemical compounds that are very sensitizing to the skin. It's like roulette- what may not bother you today might cause a reaction/sensitivity tomorrow. Proceed with caution and awareness :).
B. Don't be fooled.
You might be tempted to see that single word "fragrance" at the tail end of an ingredient deck and think 'can't be too serious in such small quantity'. In reality, the word 'fragrance' can encompass a mix of over 3,000 ingredients. In other words, the one word 'fragrance' in a deck is intentionally masking other ingredient names - so can therefore more troubling than individually listed fragrance ingredients (in my humble opinion). I figure that transparency is best, and am always suspicious why companies would want to hide a list of ingredients under a 'masking' word.
C. Know how to spot 'fragrances'
Here is a short list of commonly used fragrances in skincare. Please note that there are many others- these are just the ones I see most.
Bergamot peel Oil
Cinnamon, Cinnamyl alcohol, hexyl cinnamal and cinnamic aldehyde (cinnamon)
Peppermint and spearmint extracts
Always look for CITRUS PEEL OILS. These are known sun sensitizers. Especially troubling in sunscreens and daytime products (in my opinion). IF you love a product and it has citrus peel oils please be extra diligent with your sun protection!
NOTE: I do sometimes waiver on this issue myself...It is a personal choice whether or not to use products with fragrance. I can appreciate the love of fragrance as aromatherapy and also just as ritual in a self care routine. Decide for yourself and go with it :))! No judgement here!
4. Know your alcohols (which are drying/which are actually fatty and helpful)
There are 'good' alcohols and 'bad' alcohols. Knowing how to recognize them will help you easily read a deck as good or possibly troubling. Do remember though that some of the "bad" alcohols are useful at times in certain formulas. I typically look for the "bad" alcohols in those first 8 ingredients and if I find them there I try and assess if there is a good enough reason for their presence. I will be doing an entire blog post dedicated to this subject but in the meantime, for your quick reference here are:
These are typically alcohols that are useful for the product manufacturer (they extend stability/shelf life) but are not useful for your skin - so make sure the quantities are very low.
Denatured alcohol or alcohol denat
These are alcohols that actually help keep moisture IN the skin while also keeping your product free from bacteria:
5. Decide the overall good/bad of the deck This is personal. Take the above and put it all together and decide; is this product overall good or not so much? Consider everything and make that personal choice. What may be great for you will not be ok for another. Skincare is very personal! Other than an overtly BAD product every choice is individual. I hope that this post empowers you!