How to Read a Product Label 101

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Reading labels can be tricky. Whether you're in the grocery store trying to avoid high fructose corn syrup or at the beauty counter scanning for parabens, sometimes the ingredient list seems like it's trying to stump you. This is no truer than with skin care. With long chemical names and ingredients in Latin, you'd have to be wearing a lab coat to understand what's in your night cream.  

Because most of us are just everyday women looking to fight wrinkles, we wanted to know from a biochemist the best way to decipher labels. And luckily Dr. Michael Tick, laboratory director for The Institute for Skin Sciences, is here to help. Here are his best tips:

The Order of Ingredients Is Important
To protect their formula, skin-care companies don't reveal the exact percentages of each ingredient in the product so you never really know how much of each ingredient you are getting. But, the ingredients with the highest concentrations are listed at the top in descending order so you should buy products that have the active ingredients as the main ingredients. "For example, if hyaluronic acid is the fifth item in the ingredient list of a moisturizer, it is the fifth most concentrated ingredient in the product. You want to be certain that the active ingredients—the ones you are paying for to improve your skin—are listed near the beginning of the list," he says.

Be Informed
For the lazy gal in all of us, there is a cheat sheet of potentially harmful ingredients to steer clear of. The Cosmetics Safety Database is basically an online directory of cosmetic ingredients that gives each a toxicity hazard score. If it has a score of 12, you shouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. 

Know What Irritates You
Every woman's skin is different and one ingredient that irritates you might be totally fine for another. However, there are some common irritants out there that a lot of women tend to be sensitive to. Dr. Tick says to look out for a few in particular:

  • Detergents, which show up on labels as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Cocamidopropyl Betaine.
  • Preservatives like Benzyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol and Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate.
  • Fragrance or parfum: Artificial scent or even essential oils can cause irritation. 
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