Education is the key to being a savvy skincare consumer. One important component to being educated about skincare is knowing how to read a product label. Knowing how to read a product label helps you make better informed decisions about which skincare products to buy.
Reading skincare product labels can be complicated, mainly because of the indecipherable ingredients found in products. One way to better understand skincare product ingredients is to buy a cosmetic ingredients dictionary so you can look up ingredients.
When you are looking at the actual list of ingredients keep a few things in mind (well more than a few things). I like Dr. Ellen Marmur’s summary of how to read a product label (found on pages 274-275 of her book Simple Skin Beauty):
The label must list ingredients from the highest concentration to the lowest, so if the antiaging element you’re looking for, be it niacinamide or vitamin C, is near the bottom, there’s not enough in the product to do anything. (Keep in mind; a high concentration of the chemical is one way to get it into the skin). Most often, a cosmeceutical acts primarily as a good moisturizer, which is wonderful, but it won’t have much more than superficial and temporary results. Most of the ingredients on the label – the water, moisturizers, binders, and preservatives that make up the vehicle – are inactive. Often an antiaging product includes silicone to provide a smooth texture to the product and make the complexion look smoother too. It may also contain a little glycolic acid or lactic acid to exfoliate the skin and provide instant gratification. There elements don’t actually change anything below the surface of the your skin. At least make sure that the antioxidant or peptide you’re buying is very near the top of the ingredients list. Decoding the label has limitations, however. Most of the time a product does not state the concentration or percentage of the ingredients (and it doesn’t have to). And too high a concentration of some ingredients, such as vitamin C, can be toxic to the skin. You also can’t tell from the label whether an ingredient, like an antioxidant, is stable or not.
Keep some other important issues in mind when looking at product labels. Once again I’ll turn to Dr. Marmur’s book for an explanation (pages 110-111):
The FDA does not require cosmetics to undergo approval before they are sold to the public. Only ingredients that are classified as drugs, elements that affect the structure or function of the body, are in any way regulated. These drugs are labeled as active ingredients above the cosmetic components, or inactive ingredients. The manufacturer must provide scientific proof to the FDA that active ingredients are safe and effective. As far as cosmetic components go, they much be listed in descending order by quantity. So if water is the first ingredient listed, it’s the most plentiful element in the product. If an antioxidant is last on the list, there’s probably just a trace of it included. You should question whether that popular antioxidant or all-the-rage natural ingredient is mainly marketing or has been proven effective in the amount contained in the product.
So before you believe the claims presented in advertisements or beauty articles be sure to turn the skincare product you are interested in buying around and read the ingredients. Make sure that the ingredients you really want to try out on your skin are amongst the first 5 or so ingredients listed. If you see the ingredient toward the middle or at the bottom of the ingredient list don’t bother purchasing the product.
Further reading and resources:
Understanding product labels, particularly the ingredients, involves continually educating yourself about formulations and ingredients. Sometimes I wish I was better at chemistry so that I could become a cosmetic chemist so that I could really understand skincare ingredients and formulations. Luckily, there are many resources out there to help you along. Here are some of my favorite websites for skincare product information:
- The Beauty Brains
- Chemists Corner – a website from The Beauty Brain folks. Quite technical.
- Look up Paula Begoun’s product reviews on Beautypedia
And check out what the FDA has to say about cosmetic labeling and labeling claims.