What catches your eye when you’re browsing beauty counters? Is it the aesthetics of the packaging or the logo that draws your eyes? Trendy packaging, catchy lines, and clever buzzwords can tempt you into buying a product that may not be right for you.

Beauty products are becoming ever more sophisticated, not to say complicated. There are new or more advanced ingredients that promise higher efficacy but may also bring more and stronger side effects. This makes it all the more important for all of us to be able to understand the ingredient list and to distinguish the good from the bad.

Even if the product label makes a boring, exhausting, or confusing read, it’s central that we know what each ingredient is, what it does, and if it’s good for our skin. In particular when it comes to investing our hard-earned money on items to make our skin stay healthy, radiant, and in general look its best.

In An Unregulated Beauty World, It’s Up To You

Well, it is not quite so harsh. It’s not that the FDA (in the US) doesn’t regulate what the beauty industry has to put on their product labels, but they leave it up to the individual companies to test and ensure that the products are safe. The companies are also not required to share any of the testing results with the FDA. Finally, terms like “comedogenic”, “hypoallergenic”, or “dermatologist tested” are not legally defined by the FDA.

Just as with food packaging, companies in the US and EU are required by law to print the ingredient list on the product packages (on small containers it’s most probably a peel-back or accordion-style sticker). Still, should you encounter products without their entire ingredient list, it’s best to be suspicious about the authenticity of it and avoid it altogether.

How Is The Product Label Made Up?

The product ingredient list is structured according to the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients – in short INCI. It’s a system for listing ingredients by their scientific and for plants their Latin names. The INCI ensures that the ingredients are named consistently across nations, brands, and product types and (in theory) should make it easier to understand what’s in a product.

Ingredient list

The Order Matters

The higher up on the ingredient list something is, the higher its percentage is – or in other words, the first five to six ingredients make up the bulk of the formula. The following ingredients are added in comparatively small quantities.

The rule of “the higher the concentration, the higher up on the list” has an exception: Ingredients used in the formula have a concentration of less than 1% can be listed in any order, as long as they come after all the ingredients with whose percentages are higher than 1%. This is something that brands sometimes play with to put more attractive-sounding ingredients before others even if the product contains less of the former. The 1% is not even the whole problem. Usually, the concentration of vitamin A in over the counter products is below 1%, but there is no way to guesstimate how high the concentration really is.

If you know the concentration of an ingredient like for example The Ordinary 2% Salicylic Acid Serum, then you salicylic acid as a marker. Anything above has a higher concentration than 2%, and anything below is present at less than 2%.

How To Spot Angel Dust?

Sometimes, brands add a teeny weeny amount of a very popular ingredient to a product so that it can be listed on the product label. Since ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration but without the exact amount, companies can still prominently display the fancy ingredient on the label and in its marketing even if the amount is too small for it to produce any effects.

There is no exact “science” to gauge the amount of an ingredient, but there a few ways to spot low concentrations:

  • Since preservatives make up 1% or less, anything coming after will be in the also less than 1%
  • Pigments are rarely used above 1% which means anything featured below it will also make up at most 1%
  • The same is valid for fragrance, so anything listed after will also be at 1% at most
  • If natural extracts are listed after the chemicals, these are purely cosmetics (I just couldn’t stop with the pun)

Other Ingredients

Often times, you’ll also find “other ingredients” on the list. Companies can disguise certain ingredients and the exact compositions to protect their trade secrets. Fragrance, perfumes, and flavours are the exception to all rules and don’t need to be revealed.

A fragrance is often composed of more than 100 ingredients, some are synthetic, preservatives, or allergens. But it can be listed as a single component or under “other ingredients”. This is the explanation for the advice that people with sensitive skins should stay away from heavily-fragranced products.

Active And Inactive Ingredients

Ingredients high on the list are present in high concentration. That is to say, ingredients are listed in descending order by concentration. With certain cosmetics that’s not so. These are SPF and anti-acne products and considered over-the-counter drugs. These products will list their ingredients as active and inactive. This means that the companies will list the ingredients not by concentration but alphabetically.

An active ingredient is responsible for a specific function in a specific condition. Take titanium dioxide – it’s added to sunscreens for sun protection or adenosine for antiaging.

You can liken the inactive ingredients to the supporting cast. They’re present to support the active ingredient or purely for cosmetic benefits.

Natural, Clean, Organic, Vegan?

The FDA has regulated the use of “natural” for food labelling, but not for cosmetics. As such, terms such as vegan, clean, organic, hypoallergenic are unregulated. Meaning that the beauty industry labels a product with such terms, there’s no governing body to confirm that claim is true.

Why Bother About The Ingredient List?

Taking care of your skin is worth your time and hard-earned cash since it will make your skin look at its best which again makes you feel good about yourself.

If you want to tackle certain concerns, you may want to look for products with certain ingredients. On the flip side, you may want to avoid specific ingredients as they may provoke an allergy.

  • Known allergies or sensitivity: Reading the ingredient list will reveal to you if the product contains anything to which you may be allergic or sensitive to
  • Personal preference: Some may not mind that silicones are added to make a product feel soft but do nothing else. But if you do, that is if you know what you like, you can look for products that better suit your personal preferences.
  • What concerns do you want to tackle and will the product be effective: If you want to address anti-aging, you’ll want to look for a product that contains enough vitamin A that will speed up skin cell turnover and help reduces signs of aging.
  • Does it really need to be a high-end product: If you know which ingredients make a product effective for you, you can opt for more affordable alternatives (also called dupes) that will do the same and go lighter on your pockets.

A good thing it’s easy nowadays to research your beauty products.

How To Check If Ingredients Are Safe?

You can always enlist the help of the Environmental Working Group which we also did with betaine to check an ingredient.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit organisation. Its database is full of information and research on every ingredient you could encounter.

What makes you buy a product? Is it the packaging or do you carefully read the ingredient list? Let me know in the comments.

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