20th May 2022

How To Read a Skincare Ingredients Label Like An Expert

Last Modified: August 3, 2022

Between the questionable claims, marketing gimmicks, and fancy packaging, the beauty and skincare industry can sometimes feel like an enigma.

Not to mention foolproof regulations to govern the cosmetics industry in the UK are more or less non-existent. A quick look at the CTPA guidelines for cosmetics sheds some light.

The FAQs state, "The terms 'natural' and 'organic' are not specifically defined in EU and UK Cosmetics Regulations and certification in relation to these claims is not a legal requirement. "

This essentially means that any company can label its products as organic, regardless of how the product was made or how much organic material it contains.

If you read through the Claims section, you'll find, "It is the responsibility of the manufacturer or supplier to ensure that all claims made about a cosmetic product do not imply a characteristic it does not have."

Shocking, right!

In reality, the responsibility lies with you, the consumer. You need to do your homework before you apply a product to your face.

But I admit, that's easier said than done. Product labels can be confusing - and that's putting it mildly. Nonetheless, education is key, especially when it comes to spending your hard-earned money on products designed to help your skin look its best and stay healthy.

We are here to help you do just that! Which leads us to the topic of our discussion today: how do you read skincare product labels?

The Art of Reading Skincare Labels

  • The label of a skincare product can tell you everything from:
  • What the product is supposed to do
  • Who it is for
  • What ingredients are included
  • How to use the product most effectively.

Knowing what to look for will help you figure out if the product can help or possibly harm you. While ingredient lists on skincare brands can sometimes be difficult to decipher, you do not need a science background to figure it out. Use our tips below to help you make an informed decision the next time you shop for skincare products.

Before we get started, there's one important thing to keep in mind:
All cosmetic products marketed in the UK must be labelled with a list of ingredients. This regulation also applies to free samples, trial samples, multi-ingredient products, products sold by mail order or online, and products offered in hotels and other public places.

Bottom line: Never use or buy a beauty or skincare product whose ingredients are not clearly stated on the label!

1. Name of Ingredients

Do not be put off by complex-sounding ingredients. Ingredients in skincare products are usually listed by their INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) name, followed by their common name in parentheses.

INCI names ensure consistency between different brands, product types and countries. This means that all brands must follow the same rules when telling consumers what is in their skincare products, which in theory makes it easier to read the labels of your skincare products.

Still, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by a seemingly endless barrage of scientific terms when looking at the list of ingredients. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate, anyone? That's the formal name for the most stable form of vitamin C (it does not oxidise), which makes it a preferred choice for cosmetic formulations.

With a little research and experience, you will begin to see through the jargon. If in doubt, do not be afraid to look it up on Google.

It's worth finding out more about any ingredients that may sound harmful upfront but are actually completely safe for your skin.

2. Order of Ingredients

On a product label, ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with those used in the greatest quantity first, followed in descending order by those used in smaller quantities. The exception to this is ingredients with a concentration of less than 1%, which the manufacturer may list in any order

Why should you care about the weight of ingredients?
There are several reasons:

You know which ingredients to avoid if you have been diagnosed with an allergy. If there is an ingredient listed among the first three ingredients that is not compatible with your skin, it's safer to opt for another product.

It will help you understand how the ingredients may benefit your skin, meaning your target ingredients should be higher on the list. There are exceptions where a higher concentration does not always lead to better results. For example, what is the bioavailability of the ingredient? How well can the ingredient be absorbed into the skin without destroying or degrading its effectiveness? Only a few skincare brands like AlumierMD have managed to combine the right concentrations of ingredients with an excellent delivery mechanism.

3. Active Ingredients

We recently wrote a post about active ingredients and how they have been popularised by medical-grade skincare brands. Do the active ingredients live up to the hype? Are medical-grade skincare products the real deal or another cleverly marketed fad? Read the posts here to find out.

For now, here is a brief definition. An active ingredient is an ingredient for which there is scientific data showing that it can cause a specific change in the skin. Simply put, if you want to address a specific skin problem (acne, wrinkles, pigmentation, dryness, etc.), this is the ingredient you should pay the most attention to.

Another thing you should look for in an active ingredient is concentration. Most active ingredients have very specific percentage ranges, supported by research, where they have their best effect on the skin.

The good news is that the active ingredients are often listed in the title of the product. A good example is AlumierMD's "AlumierMD EverActive C&E + Peptides." It is clear from the product title that the active ingredients are vitamin C & E and peptides.

Alternatively, the leading attribute of the active ingredients is listed. An example is HydraClarité Moisturizer (moisturiser for oily and blemish-prone skin) and HydraCalm Moisturizer (moisturiser for sensitive and redness-prone skin).

4. Other Related Information On Skincare Labels

The term "parfum" means perfume. This can consist of many ingredients that are rarely listed individually. They consist of synthetic fragrances and give products that indulgent feel. Apart from this, they have no functional purpose. If your product contains "parfum", you should perform a patch test on your skin before applying it to large areas of your face and/or body.

Colour additives are identified by "Cl" (Colour Index) followed by their number. They can be listed in any order after all other ingredients are listed.
The dyes in skin care products make your products look good and smell good. They may not do the same for your skin. Dyes in skincare products are potentially harmful to your skin and its overall health.

Potential allergens contained in natural oils and fragrances are listed at the end of the INCI list and are usually marked with an asterisk or listed in italics.

In addition to the list of ingredients, you will also find information on the shelf life of the product on the label. The expiry date on skincare products is often indicated either by:

  • a best before date (BBE), which is sometimes represented by an hourglass symbol, or
  • a Period After Opening date, which is usually represented in the form of a jar symbol along with a time, such as "6M", meaning 6 months. The label should also include usage and storage instructions that can help you get the most out of your product.

There are certain words on the label that can be very helpful in understanding the composition:

Alcohol-free; This only refers to one specific alcohol, ethyl alcohol. However, the product may still contain cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl or lanolin alcohols, which are fatty alcohols and can dry out the skin.
Hypoallergenic. The likelihood of the product causing allergic reactions is low compared to other products.

Non-comedogenic; The product does not contain any ingredients that can clog your pores and cause acne. So if you have oily or acne-prone skin, look for a "non-comedogenic" label when buying skincare or cosmetic products.
Organic. Organic products are products that contain carbon. However, some cosmetics and skincare product manufacturers use synthetic chemicals derived from petrolatum and label them "organic".

Sulphates; (including sodium laureth sulphates, alkyl benzene sulfonate, sodium cocoyl sarcosinate). "Sulphates are the detergents responsible for the super-foaming lather you get from most cleansers. They attract water and oil and allow soaps, shampoos, cleansers, and body washes to lift dirt and oil from your skin. While there is no evidence that sulphates cause cancer, they can irritate sensitive skin as they are designed to loosen dirt and oil from the skin.

Essential oils; Allergic reactions to essential oils are common. If your product contains essential oils, do a patch test first and look for signs of skin irritation before using it elsewhere.
Parabens: A group of preservatives used to keep a formula stable and maintain its effectiveness. But are parabens the cancer-causing skincare pariah we have been led to believe? Not really. For the most part, the parabens you'll find in your skincare ingredient list are safe for the skin (though beware of unscrupulous skincare manufacturers).

To Wrap Up

Ultimately, you should feel perfectly capable of analysing for yourself the ingredients you put on your skin. And if you have any questions along the way, we are here to help you make sense of it.

Post Reviewed by: Dr Baldeep Farmah
Medically Reviewed on: 20th May 2022
Dr Baldeep Farmah is the Medical Director and lead Doctor of Dr Aesthetica, a Medical Aesthetic Clinic.

"We want to empower everyone who walks through our clinic doors, to be able to look in the mirror and see a happier, brighter version of themselves."

For everyone that walks through our clinic doors, you may think you are alone, but you are not. Our patients all have a different story to tell but all come from a similar place.
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