How To Read Cosmetics/Skin Care Ingredient Labels

I like to know what I’m putting on my skin and in my body, so I always read ingredient labels before I buy skin care products, cosmetics, and food. But those labels can be intimidating with all those long, un-pronouncable words in microscopic type. I’ve done a little research over the years to try to figure some of it out, but I’m not a chemist, so most of it’s still greek to me. I’ve been able to learn enough to know what to look for and what to avoid, so here are some basics of reading cosmetics and skin care product ingredient labels.

Ing Label Neutrogena

The EU and the US FDA have similar rules for all cosmetic labels, they are:

  1. Ingredients must be listed on external packaging
  2. Ingredients are listed in descending order by concentration meaning the main ingredient is 1st, until a concentration of less than 1%, then they can be in any order
  3. Active ingredients are listed separately with their concentrations
  4. Fragrance and color are not required to be listed by concentration and usually appear last
  5. Trade secret ingredients don’t have to be listed at all and can be shown as:  “And Other Ingredients”

The problem is that you don’t know where the 1% list starts or how much of anything you’re really getting. A general rule of thumb is that the first 4-7 ingredients are above 1%, so if you’re looking for a specific active ingredient, make sure it’s high on the list.

Next, let’s decipher some of the most common ingredients in cosmetics and skincare products:

  1. Sunscreens: Basically come in 2 categories, physical or mineral sunscreen, and chemical sunscreen. Both are safe and effective for most people, but some people have allergies so they can’t use one kind or even both. Physical sunscreens usually have names that end in “-ide” like Titanium Dioxide, or Zinc Oxide while Chemical sunscreens have names that end in “-one” or “-ate” like Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Homosalate and Octisalate. Sunscreens are classified as “Active Drugs” so are listed in the Active ingredients section and have their % listed.
  2. Silicones: Which come under “emollients and slip agents”  these are what give cosmetics and moisturizers that light, silky feel and helps ensure even application of pigments and active ingredients. The most common forms of silicone are cyclopentasiloxane and cyclohexasiloxane, dimethicone and phenyl trimethicone. Most silicones will have “-cone” or “meth”  in the name.
  3. Alcohols: have a wide range of uses in cosmetics & skincare, some are good and some are bad.  Alcohols can be drying and irritating especially for oil prone skin as they can encouage oil production. Alcohols to avoid: ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol (when it’s among the main ingredients), isopropyl alcohol, and SD alcohol, especially if they are listed at the top, when at the bottom they are fine. Good or “fatty” alcohols are: cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol & laureth-23,  stearyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol.
  4. Moisturizers: Ingredients that draw water to the skin and hold it, or form a protective barrier: look for ingrenients like: hyaluronic acid (sodium hyaluronate), glycerin,  shea butter, alpha hydroxy acid, jojoba, almond, coconut, sesame, and olive oils.
  5. Anti-Aging: Some of the most effective, scientifically proven anti-aging ingredients are vitamins. Vitamins A,C, and E,  are commonly used in skincare, their label names are: Vitamin A: retinol, retinoic acid, tretinoin, Vitamin C can be L-Ascorbic Acid, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Ester-C, or tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, Vitamin E is tocopherol, d-alpha tocopherol, or d-alpha tocopherol acetate. Acids are also great for anti-aging, look for Alpha-hydroxy acid which is also called glycolic acid or AHA while Beta Hydroxy Acid is also calaled Salicylic acid or BHA.

Most cosmetics and skincare products are mostly made up of water and fillers, so you’ll often see “water” or “aqua” as the 1st ingredient, followed by cyclopentasiloxane or dimethicone.

ing label ELDWL


A worthwhile product will have good quality ingredients near the top of the list.

Cera Ve

Ingredients label from CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizer. Notice that moisturizing or skin communicating ingredients Glycerin, Niacinamide, Ceramides, good fatty Alcohols, and Hyaluronic Acid are above fillers and preservatives like Dimethicones and Parabens

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