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Ask an Expert: How to Read Skin Care Ingredient Lists

July 09, 2020 3 Comments

Ask an Expert: How to Read Skin Care Ingredient Lists

Decisions, decisions. Choosing a skincare product can be overwhelming. You want it to work, and you want it to be safe. So how can someone without a chemistry degree navigate the complex and confusing labels on the back of the 10,000 Vitamin C Serums on the shelf? If you want to understand how to decode an ingredient list, it’s helpful to know the rules that govern the realm of skincare labeling.

1. Look at the first 12 skincare ingredients on the label

Order is important. If you want to find the most effective skincare products, you should only look at the first 12 ingredients on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order, up until the 1% level. The ingredients that are in the highest concentrations are always going to be listed first. Some people will tell you to only look at the first 5 ingredients, but this is only true of clear serums and gels. That’s because clear serums and gels don’t have as many ingredients in the base. If your formula is a lotion, milky serum, or cream, it can easily have a handful of waxes, emulsifiers, oils and humectants that can take up the first 10 ingredients of the formula.  That doesn’t mean it’s not effective. There are just more ingredients that go into the base.

2. Water is not bad

People think that seeing water listed first is a bad thing, but it’s not! Water is a solvent, meaning it helps the other ingredients to penetrate your skin. Of all the solvents chemists can use, it’s the most gentle and non-sensitizing. Typically, you will see “base” ingredients listed at the beginning of an ingredient list. This means you’ll see water, waxes and oils first. These are necessary as top ingredients because they help to deliver ingredients to your skin.

3. Look for Good Actives

Look for efficacious ingredients like Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Vitamin C or Hyaluronic Acid in the middle of the ingredient list, as high up as possible. But also remember, these ingredients don’t have to be at high concentrations to work well. Some forms of Vitamin C (like Aminopropyl Ascorbyl Phosphate) are designed to be used at very low concentrations and are proven to work as low as 0.5%. Hyaluronic Acid is effective at levels as low as 0.1%, especially if it’s in the form of a smaller molecule. Smaller molecules tend to penetrate the skin better, so it’s better to get a product with a low to medium weight Hyaluronic Acid at only 0.1% than it is to get a product with 1% of a large molecule Hyaluronic Acid. The quality of the ingredient is so much more important than the quantity.

4. Ingredients are listed by INCI names.

Let’s say you pick up a Vitamin E Serum but you don’t see Vitamin E listed on the ingredient list. Before you panic, understand that there are certain regulations that require brands to list ingredients by their “INCI” name. INCI stands for international nomenclature for cosmetic ingredients. That’s why you’ll see “Tocopheryl acetate” or “tocopherol” instead of Vitamin E. These brands aren’t trying to confuse you, they are just trying to follow the rules. With the help of Google, you can figure out the “real” name of any of these confusing chemicals.

5. Learn how to spot a “clean” formula.

With everyone claiming their product is “clean” with no real guidelines enforced, it’s hard to know whether a product is actually “dirty” or not. All retailers have a different criteria of what they think is clean and it’s hard to keep up. That being said, it’s best to avoid known irritants like Methylisothiazolinone, Triclosan and formaldehyde releasers like Parabens and Triethanolamine. If you have very sensitive skin you may want to avoid high levels of fragrance. If you have very dry skin, you can try to avoid drying alcohols like ethanol and SD Alcohol. Pay attention to which formulas work for you, and which don’t.
Be skeptical of any company that says their product is chemical free. Did you know water is a chemical? Everything is a chemical! Chemicals aren’t bad. What’s more important is safety, efficacy and sustainability. The more you learn about what’s in your formulas, the more empowered you can become to choose the best skincare products for your needs.
Still have burning questions about which skincare products are best? Drop us a line and send your question to with the subject line “BLOG QUESTION” for a chance to be featured on our next blog.

3 Responses


August 06, 2020



August 06, 2020


Vanessa Ezenwa
Vanessa Ezenwa

July 10, 2020


I love you products. I live in Nigeria. I would really love to be one of your key distributors in Nigeria. I have a question please.
What ingredient are best avoided in sunscreens for sensitive acne prone skin.

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