The Easiest Hacks Ever for Reading a Skin-Care Product Label

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This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

Cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos has a resume that runs the gamut when it comes to beauty: Her first job out of college was a four-year stint working on new fragrance flavors for Lip Smackers, followed by a decade-long run formulating for Nivea. Regardless of her resume, she says she always gives the same five-word piece of skin-care advice to anyone who asks: Read the label in full.

“That includes both the immediate labeling on the product package itself and any outer packaging like a carton or any attached folding label,” she advises. “The usage instructions and any warnings are there for your safety and I find are all too often ignored. You never want to use a product in a manner that the manufacturer didn’t intend or has specifically warned you against.”

TIP: 01 Analyze This

Yes, it sounds super scientific, but cosmetic ingredients are given systematic names by the International Cosmetic Ingredient Nomenclature Committee (INCI), a panel of scientists from academia, industry and regulatory authorities. “While they don’t always appear familiar or may be hard to pronounce, they are intended to tell us something about the chemistry and nature of the ingredient, as well as provide consistency for product labeling around the world,” Dobos says. “For example, a new vegan collagen was given the name sh-Polypeptide-121. The ‘sh-’ helps us identify that the ingredient is synthetic, and the term polypeptide gives us some information about the molecule’s size. Peptides are made up of amino acids, and chains of fewer than 20 amino acids are called oligopeptides and include tripeptides and tetrapeptides. Polypeptides have a longer chain length.”

TIP: 02 High to Low

Like food, skin-care ingredients are listed in order of concentration, highest to lowest. “Under 1 percent, there is some freedom,” Dobos warns. Cosmetic chemist Esther Oluwaseun agrees, and says that while it sounds simple, the first thing to do is look at a product’s claims. “If I am looking for a brightening product, I want to find something that contains a brightening ingredient, like tranexamic acid or vitamin C. Percentages don’t tell the full story, but if a consumer has sensitivities to high doses, they can also look for this as well.”

TIP: 03 Take Five

Celebrity aesthetician Renée Rouleau points out that, after what she calls the “first five,” all other ingredients aren’t that important. “A major mistake consumers can make when reading a skin-care label is judging based off the First Five Rule. This rule claims that because the first five ingredients listed on a label have the highest percentages, they are ultimately what determines the true performance of a product. Those who follow this rule claim that any ingredients listed after the first five won’t have a meaningful effect on the skin because they are included at too low a percentage to perform.” While Rouleau says it’s true that ingredients are generally listed in order of highest to lowest, skin-care formulations are nuanced. “Long story short, an ingredient doesn’t have to be listed within the top five to have a positive impact on the skin. Casting judgment based solely on the first five ingredients is an inaccurate way of evaluating a product’s content and performance.”

Inside Tip: The best advice is to manage expectations, Oluwaseun offers. “Consumers should properly manage their expectations when reading beauty product labels. This entails trying the products out, looking at thorough product reviews and doing your homework— all of these steps help make better-informed purchasing decisions.”

TIP: 04 Active Fit

It’s no secret that ingredients like retinol and retinoids have been studied extensively for years, and according to Dobos, there’s not a whole lot left in debate about their efficacy. “We know they can be very efficacious at levels 0.05 to 0.01 percent, when used consistently over time. But other ingredients, like vitamin C, require higher percentages. There are also ways that cosmetic chemists can enhance delivery of ingredients, but these aren’t easily gleaned from an ingredient statement unless they’re described elsewhere on the label with terms such as ‘encapsulated’ or ‘liposomes,’— another reason reading the entire label is beneficial.”

TIP: 05 Concentration Counts

Natural oils and botanical extracts contain hundreds of chemicals that can vary in concentration and quality over time, and Dobos warns they are often diluted in a carrier like glycerin or a glycol. “When I see these kinds of ingredients called out on the front of the label, but in a very low position on the ingredient statement, I’m highly skeptical. Something like rosehip oil contains only about 0.4 parts per million (0.00004 percent) of retinoic acid—that’s a very tiny amount, which is further diluted when made into a skin-care formulation.”

The Trio-Check

Rouleau admits it can be very difficult to determine whether a product will deliver good results for your skin just by looking at the label, yet offers these three words of wisdom.

01 Get Into Specifics

Every ingredient has its purpose. It could be a humectant, meaning it’s included in a formula to draw water from the air and from the deeper layers of the skin in order to hydrate the skin. Or, it could be a solvent, meaning it dissolves a substance to make a solution. Every ingredient has a purpose, and the best product for your skin could very well be the one that may not look like it based on the ingredient label alone.

02 Not Every Ingredient Is What it Seems

If you’re reading an ingredient label, and you see alcohol listed, you might assume that the product will be drying. This isn’t always the case. For example, a common form of vitamin E (tocopherol), is actually an alcohol, yet it offers moisturizing benefits.

03 The Percentage of an Ingredient Matters

An ingredient can perform differently depending on the percentage used. Take niacinamide: At 0.5 percent, this ingredient gives skin a boost of energy. At 2 percent, it can help improve the function of the skin barrier. The bottom line is that you can’t tell the exact percentage of an ingredient just by looking at the label unless the brand has provided that information. The percentage is a vital piece of the puzzle, because, as demonstrated by niacinamide, an ingredient can provide different actions at different percentages.

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