Reading Skin Care Ingredient Labels (made simple-ish)

Ok, so you know your skin type, you are starting to understand what your skin barrier is, and you have a good understanding of what a basic skincare routine consists of. What next? Well if you’re anything like me, you probably want to start understanding what the heck you are putting on your skin everyday, what the ingredients mean on the back of the label, and how to figure out for yourself what is good and what is bad. There’s a lot of information out there on “toxic” ingredients and “clean beauty”. I’m constantly reading conflicting studies and opinions on what ingredients I should be avoiding, what I should be adding to my routine, and what ingredients work best together or not. What does it all mean? It can be quite overwhelming and confusing. 

What you get out of it: Having some basic knowledge of skin care ingredients can really lend to how you approach the products you buy and use. As I briefly mentioned above, knowing what ingredients can be used together or not can be the difference between smooth skin and irritation, between seeing results and not. Being in the know can help you decide what kind of products or ingredients will work best with your skin type and skin issues. It can also help you make better choices when buying skincare, really knowing where you are putting your money and not feeling like you have to spend $200 on a product when there is a nearly exact formula at your local drugstore for ten bucks. 

Here are some popular ingredients in skincare products:

AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids)/ BHAs (beta hydroxy acids): Both AHA and BHA work to exfoliate your skin, but they do so in different ways. AHA works on the surface of the skin and is usually preferred by people with dry and/or aging skin as AHA can help enhance skin moisture and minimize sun damage and wrinkles. Some of the more popular AHAs include glycolic and lactic acid. 

BHA works deeper in the skin to dissolve oil, unclog pores and help smooth texture. BHA can also help minimize inflammation within the skin. It is usually prefered by people with oily or acneic skin, or skin that is prone to sensitivity. The most popular BHA is salicylic acid.

PHA (polyhydroxy acid): A newer thing in the skincare world. PHAs are similar to AHAs performance-wise, but they are made of larger molecules that don’t penetrate as deeply into the skin, therefore PHAs are a great option for skin types who can’t seem to tolerate other AHA or BHA products. One of the most popular PHAs is gluconolactone.

Vitamin C: A very widely used ingredient in skincare, vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help improve skin tone and minimize wrinkles. It is also known to provide protection against free radicals (hence the antioxidant factor). Vitamin C comes in many different forms, but the most used and studied is L-ascorbic acid. Vitamin C can be a pretty unstable ingredient, meaning it is extremely sensitive to light and air and can become oxidized (efficacy diminished) very quickly, so it is important to make sure when you are buying a vitamin c product, you are looking for one that is air-tight and in opaque packaging.

Niacinamide: Also known as vitamin B-3, niacinamide is an ingredient that is becoming increasingly popular. It helps minimize pores, evens skin tone, can reduce oil production, and helps repair skin barrier. Read more about niacinamide here.

Retinol/Retinoids: Both in the vitamin A family. Retinol is in much lower concentrations and can be found in many over the counter products. It has to be converted by the skin through a process that turns the retinol into retinoic acid. A popular over the counter retinol is Differin Gel. Retinoids are prescription strength and include tretinoin or brand name Retin-A (prescription retinoid is already in the form of retinoic acid and does not need to be converted). Both over the counter retinoids and prescription retinoic acid can help treat acne, lighten dark spots, and increase collagen production leading to a decrease in fine lines and wrinkles. Read more about the differences here.

Hyaluronic Acid: Naturally occurring in our skin, hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1000x its weight in water making it a very hydrating ingredient to put into a skincare product. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant↓ and helps to hydrate and plump the skin.

Humectants: Retains moisture, draws water into the skin, helps hydrate the skin. Usually found in water based products. Some common humectants in skin care products are hyaluronic acid, glycerin, aloe vera, honey, and urea. Here’s a more in depth post on the science of humectants.

Occlusives/Emollients: Occlusives help seal in moisture and help prevent trans epidermal water loss. Similarly, emollients soften the skin and repair skin barrier. Common occlusive/emollient ingredients are dimethicone, shea butter, cocoa butter, petroleum, lanolin, beeswax, and oils (argan, squalane, jojoba, etc).

Preservatives: Used in skincare to prevent microbial growth in products and help to extend the shelf life. Some common preservatives in skincare are methylparaben, polyparaben, tocopheryl acetate, phenoxyethanol, benzyl alcohol, ethylhexylglycerin, sorbic acid, propylene glycol, and DMDM hydantoin. Preservatives are important for the safety of skincare products, but there is a lot of controversy around the safety of some preservatives. Here is some more info on that:

Fragrance: A very broad term in skincare. Fragrance can be a tricky thing because there are some products that have a very obvious scent and some products that have something called “masking fragrance” which is an ingredient(s) that masks the natural smell of the product and makes it smell kind of like nothing. A little confusing right? The reason it matters is because while a product having a nice scent might create a more spa-like or sensory experience when using skincare, a lot of people can be very sensitive to fragrance. Even if you don’t seem to react to it right away, over time it can start to wear on your skin barrier and lead to irritation. Not all fragrance in skincare is necessarily a bad thing.. There are some ingredients that are good for the skin that just smell nice, like cucumber and green tea!

Read more about the different types of fragrance here.

A note on percentages and strengths of ingredients: Skin care companies are required to list ingredients in order of descending concentration. However, once the ingredients are lower than 1% (toward the bottom of the ingredient list), they no longer have to be in order. Knowing the percentage of an active ingredient, like how much vitamin C or vitamin A is in a product, is important because it gives you an idea of how your skin will react. For example, there are some products that contain 5% niacinamide and some that contain up to 20%. Niacinamide is a wonderful ingredient as mentioned above, but it is also quite a powerful one, and it is smart, like with all skincare actives, to start with a lower percentage to see how your skin reacts and to let your skin build a tolerance to the ingredient before using a higher strength. This is especially important when using retinoic acid. If you started with 0.1% (the strongest percentage of prescription retinoid acid) you’d likely be met with a very unpleasant reaction. You would more likely start with the lowest strength, and even when using the lowest percentage of retinoic acid, most people prefer to start by diluting that even farther with “buffering” the product by applying it after moisturizer, before moving up to the next strength. It is important to give your skin time to adjust so you can see the most benefits in the long term. Also, using a higher percentage of an ingredient usually does not mean you will see results any faster, it just means you are increasing the risk of bad reactions and/or irritation.

Read more about percentages and labeling here: 

If you are interested in learning more about ingredients or if you love researching and reading studies like I do, I have found some really great resources when it comes to decoding ingredient lists and combing through studies to find what actually sticks. Instead of trying to condense too much information into one post, I thought it would be a good idea to start by introducing you to the people who make it their job to inform others. No matter how much you know about skin care, you can get a lot of great information from them on what is what.

Paula’s Choice: Founded by Paula Begoun, Paula’s Choice is a fantastic science-based skincare line. There is a section on their website that is called “ingredient dictionary”. It is a really great, easy way to search for a specific ingredient you might be curious about.

Inci Decoder: Similar to the Paula’s Choice dictionary, Inci Decoder has an option to look up individual ingredients, but they also have an option where you can search a product you are curious about and it will list and decode all of the ingredients in that product. Super convenient if you don’t want to look up ingredients one at a time.

Lab Muffin: Otherwise known as Michelle, Lab Muffin has a PhD in chemistry and writes about a variety of things pertaining to skin care including busting myths and explaining the science behind ingredients.

Stephan Ko: Cosmetic formulator. Stephan Ko writes about various topics pertaining to the cosmetic industry and is one of my favorite myth busters! He is also really great at sharing and explaining studies. You can check out his Instagram here.

Chemist Confessions: A team of two chemists, Victoria and Gloria. On Chemist Confessions, they write great guides on ingredients as well as science based product reviews. They also have a really fun podcast where they take a deep dive on various skin care topics! Click here for the latest. Good option if you prefer listening instead of reading.  

Skinchemy: A cosmetic scientist on Instagram. She has really great and easy to follow cheat sheets about ingredients. 

I hope you get as much use of these sources as I have. Here’s to the beginning or furthering of knowledge!   

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