Reading Skincare Ingredient Lists

ingredients labels

We've all been there. Browsing the halls of your favourite skincare store, drugstore or luxury, and there it is. A product touting the latest, most trendy skincare ingredient. The packaging is beautiful. The reviews have hyped it up. It's time to treat yourself.

But lo and behold, you try it once. You try it twice. And now your skin is on fire.

What went wrong? You deserved none of this.

How do you make sure it doesn't happen again?

Here's what we know in the lab.

TLDR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

  • Labeled ingredients will be listed from the highest concentration to the lowest.
  • It's all about the dosage - consider where the product will be applied. Something that has a safe concentration of ingredients for your body might not be safe for your face. Focus on the top 6 ingredients.
  • 'Fragrance/Parfum' can mean a lot of things. Some brands use it as a way to protect their intellectual property, but it can mean that there's a combination of synthetic and chemical compounds creating the fragrance you're smelling. Check out this post for a distinction on all-natural fragrance vs. synthetic.
  • Some common ingredients to avoid: sulfates, silicones, mineral oil, polyunsaturated oils (PUFAs), and parabens.
  • Our philosophy at Chemnist is that if the ingredient doesn't need to be in the product, we leave it out. That's why you can count the number of ingredients on two hands.

    Getting Into the Details

    1. Ingredients are required to be listed according to their INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) names. INCI is a standardized system of names that includes scientific, Latin and English terms. So you'll see "Aqua" instead of water, or "Tocopherol" instead of vitamin E. It can get confusing really fast, so get accustomed to doing your research.
    2. Scrutinize the first 6 ingredients. Since ingredients are listed from the highest concentration to the lowest, looking at the first 6 will give you confidence about what the majority of the product is made up of.
    3. Use phenoxyethanol as a guide. Phenoxyethanol, a common preservative, is not formulated above 1% concentration, and in the U.S., there is the '1% exclusion rule.' This means that ingredients with concentrations lower than 1% can be listed in any order. Said another way, if the ingredient is listed after phenoxyethanol, it's likely less than 1% of the formulation. If it's listed before it, it's more than 1%. If a brand calls an ingredient a key/active one, but it's listed after phenoxyethanol, it's likely just a marketing tactic.
    4. Parfum is just French for perfume or fragrance and because the FDA does not require cosmetic companies to individually disclose each fragrance, parfum or fragrance can stand for a variety of fragrant ingredients, both synthetic and natural.

    Everyone has different skincare needs. Some are more sensitive than others, so truly, it comes down to what works for you personally. However, you can always leverage these tricks of the trade to stay clear of the common irritants.


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