Skincare Labels – What to Look For

Deciding on a skincare line and deciding if it’s going to work is a daunting and frustrating ordeal. We are bombarded with ads and celebrity endorsements for products all the time. In the past, I would buy mainly based on how glitzy the packaging was, before and after photos, the promise of instant results. Well, in 90% of the products I tried, the claims did not live up to the hype. I never knew how to tell the reality from the hype, so I ended up being a victim of marketing and impulse buying. I bought into so many products, and it they all ended in my wastebasket or back of the cabinet.

After awhile, I realized I could be more informed and make better decisions on what to try. It just takes some investigative work and time. I will give you some pointers on what to look for in ingredient labels. Once you have this basic knowledge, you will not be as lost in the cosmetic aisles, and you will save yourself from a lot of grief, disappointment, and money.

Deciphering Ingredient Labels

Surprisingly, this is the most important thing in understanding skincare, but most people don’t even bother to look at ingredients. Just like reading nutrition labels on your food products, you want to know what you are putting on your face. The FDA does not monitor or approve skincare ingredients like it does for drugs. Therefore, it is even more important you know what is going on your skin and, potentially, accumulating in your body. Even if a product proclaims itself as “natural” and “organic”, there are no government regulations that ensure this is true. Be aware that most claims by skincare companies are not proven or backed by independent studies. Take any claims with a grain of salt and find out what the ingredients actually are and how they work. Look for scientific studies, patents, and impartial reviews from other consumers before buying.

Find yourself a good source for information on ingredients. The Environmental Working Group has a good database at which rates ingredients on a scale of 1-10 for safety. You can also purchase the “Milady’s Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary”. Even using the Internet or Wikipedia is a good source for looking up ingredients. Also, check out the ingredients glossary found on the Smart Skincare website at

These are guidelines to look for in any ingredient label:

1. You want to make sure there are proven actives in the formula, something that will change the structure of the skin or affect some change in the cells. Actives would include things like tretinoin, retinoids, vitamin C derivatives, peptides, Avogen, etc.

2. Are the actives able to penetrate the skin and reach the dermal cells (where aging occurs) or are they just sitting on the surface of the skin? The molecule should be small enough (less than 750 Daltons) or there must be a transport mechanism in the formula to allow penetration of the active.

3. Other than the actives, look at the inactive ingredients. These are ingredients to keep lotions and creams from separating, make it go on better, the preservatives, fragrances, color. Are there so many other inactive ingredients that the actives are overpowered or hindered by all the inactive ingredients? If so, you may want to skip this product, because you will be paying for mostly inactive ingredients.

4. Make sure there are is not a long laundry list of ingredients on the label. The more ingredients, the more likely the concentration of each is too small to make much difference.

5. Try to eliminate products that contain known irritants and are potential sensitizers and pore cloggers. This is why you need a resource guide for ingredients. Look up every ingredient. When you are putting something on your face day after day, you need to make sure it is safe for your skin and body for long-term use.

6. Make sure the actives are listed towards the front of the list. The ingredients which make up a product are listed from highest to lowest concentration on the ingredient label. So if the actives are listed towards the end, the concentrations may be so low they won’t do anything for your skin. However, they can claim it’s in the product purely for marketing purposes.

7. Do the contents justify the price or are you paying for packaging and advertising? Is there some patented ingredient, special processing that justifies the price? Unfortunately, most skincare companies will use the cheapest ingredients but mark up the products so high, it appears you are getting high quality ingredients. Cost does not equate to effectiveness in skincare.

Natural/Organic Versus Synthetic/Chemical Skincare

This is a hot topic of discussion. More and more people are turning to a natural and organic approach to skincare. Often, people talk about their preference for one or the other. Some people claim that the natural and organic skincare lines are totally ineffective and irritating, while the other camp claims that there are too many toxins and cancer-promoting chemicals in anything except natural/organic lines.  My take is you can’t categorize either approach as all good or all bad because there are so many different formations.  You cannot generalize with sweeping statements that one or the other approach is better. There are very good natural/organic lines and very bad natural/organic lines. Same goes for the mostly chemical and synthetic based lines; there are good ones and bad ones. You have to evaluate each skincare product on its individual merits, ingredients, and formulation. The cosmetic chemist who formulates a product has to know exactly what each ingredient does and how they interact with each other in order to produce something that works and will not cause damage to your skin. It is a science experiment in a bottle, and I prefer experts to be doing that. Which is why I don’t advise DIY skincare or mixing products from different skincare lines unless you understand the chemistry and interactions of ingredients.

Personally, I prefer a more natural and organic approach simply for the reason that there is less chance of encountering toxins and mutagens with natural substances and less chance of adverse reaction from mixing natural ingredients. But I don’t shun all synthetics or man-made chemicals either. My guideline is always use natural if the ingredient is safe and effective. If the only safe and effective options are synthetic, then I would go with those. Each formation must be safe and effective, regardless of whether they are mainly natural or synthetic ingredients.

Avoid Ingredients That Will Age Your Skin

Some natural ingredients such as essential oils can cause sensitivity in some people, especially in high concentrations. So look out for things you are allergic to in ingredient labels. Conversely, many chemicals in skincare products can cause sensitivity. The best way to avoid sensitivity issues is to limit the number of ingredients that are not necessary in a product. These include things that make something look better, feel better on the skin, or smell better… artificial dyes, fragrance, or preservatives. Check out every ingredient. If you see a bunch of ingredients which are comedogenic, unnecessary, redundant, or likely to make your irritated and sensitive over time, I would skip it. Ingredients which cause irritation will cause inflammation, and remember that free radicals result from inflammation, which in turn ages your skin. So, it’s very important to avoid all ingredients that create sensitivity, irritation, inflammation, and the subsequent free radicals. This includes acids, hydroquinone, peroxides, formaldehydes, ascorbic C, overuse of Retin-A, fragrance, dyes, detergents, excessive use of essential oils, etc.

More than likely, you will eventually develop sensitive skin or rosacea from a regimen of layering multiple products, which themselves, contain multiple ingredients. Look at your current products (cleansers, toners, moisturizers, primers, sunscreen, makeup, etc.) and count the number of ingredients you are putting on your face and body. It will probably amaze you to know that it’s not uncommon for a woman to be applying 200 or more substances, mostly chemicals, over the course of a day on her face and body. Keep your products simple with a few potent, but effective and proven, ingredients and reduce the chance of creating problems for your skin and general health.

Other Common Ingredients to Avoid

These are some other common ingredients to avoid in your skincare because of potential systemic toxicity or damage to skin they can cause with long-term use:

1. Sodium lauryl sulfate: Very common detergent used in many, many cleansers, skincare, shampoo, personal hygiene products. Long-term use causes sensitivity, dry, irritated skin. If something bubbles and foams a lot, more than likely it contains SLS. Opt for lotion cleansers instead of foamy ones.

2. Mineral oil: A very inexpensive base made from petrochemicals used in many formulations because of its moisture retention properties. It can be moderately pore clogging and interfere with normal skin functions by creating an occlusive barrier on top of the skin.

3. Imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea: Preservatives which can lead to extreme skin sensitivity with long-term use.

4. Synthetic colors and fragrance: There is no benefit to having these in skincare, except for making things smell and look better. The long-term effects are unknown, so best to avoid them to prevent any possible irritation and toxicity from these.

5. Parabens (methy, ethyl, and butyl): Preservatives used widely in skincare which may have estrogenic properties and, therefore, could cause breast cancers. There is no definitive study with direct links to cancer, but use formulations that don’t use these as much as possible.


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