Deciphering a Skin Care Product's Ingredients

Most skincare products have a full listing of ingredients on the label or box. This labeling is required by the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which mandates that all ingredients be listed. The law also gives guidelines on the format for the listing.

Skincare products and other cosmetics are dealt with differently than drugs when it comes to FDA regulations. When the FDA approves a new drug for the market, it requires extensive testing for safety and effectiveness before it is approved. Skincare products and their component ingredients are not subject to the same rigorous testing requirements. One of the results of this less vigorous testing process is that it is not a requirement to clearly differentiate between active and inactive ingredients on the label of cosmetics and skincare products. This means that your first step when deciphering the label is to work out any proven active ingredients on the list. If you are not sure which active ingredients to look for, see the Anti-aging Treatments section of this site.

After you are sure that there are good active ingredients on the list, you next need to work out if there is a high enough concentration of the active ingredients to make the product effective. The concentration level is not always listed on the label; as a matter of fact, it usually isn't. What is useful to know is that the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act require ingredients to be listed in order of the greatest amount to the least amount. Usually, water, oil, and other vehicles will come first, followed by other ingredients. It is unlikely that an active ingredient will be in the top two spots on the list, but at the very end of a long list, it is unlikely to have high enough concentration to be of much value. Certain active ingredients like estrogens can be effective in trace amounts, but most need a reasonably high concentration level to be useful. One example would be vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) which needs to make up at least 10 percent of the compound to be of value. The ingredient's position in the list should give you a general idea of its concentration, which will give you an idea of whether it will be effective. The best way to determine the concentration of active ingredients in a product is to call the company that produced it and ask.

Skin Care Product's With Vitamin C

The rules of descending concentration do have some exceptions, which include:

  • Drugs are listed before all other ingredients, no matter what the level of concentration. A good example of a drug commonly found in skincare treatments is tretinoin which is found in Retin A.
  • Secret or patented formulas do not have to show what the makeup of active ingredients is. Still, they are required to submit an FDA application that lists the alias they use on the label in the place of naming the exact ingredients.
  • Fragrances and colors are usually listed last, no matter the level of their concentration in the product.
  • Any ingredient present in a concentration of less than 1% can be listed in any order as long as it comes after those ingredients with higher concentrations. There are no rules that require the disclosure of the 1% cutoff.
  • Some ingredients can come in multiple forms. An example of this is Vitamin A, which can be used in a product such as retinal, retinol, or retinyl palmitate); these would be listed as different ingredients even if they are basically the same thing.

Skin Care Product's With Retinols

The last thing that you need to do when you are looking into the makeup of the ingredient list examines the ingredients that are present in the highest concentrations and make sure that they agree with your skin. It would be best to stay away from things that you know irritate your skin due to allergy or otherwise. For example, you should avoid comedogenic ingredients if you are prone to acne. In addition, certain ingredients are used in skincare products that can be potentially harmful to the skin; you should avoid these no matter what. (See the section on potentially harmful ingredients.)

To be really careful (or if you are particularly interested in science), you could research each ingredient so that you understand its purpose and foibles.

It is a good idea to understand what a person eats or puts on their body as much as you can. Although it is impossible to understand everything, there are some good reasons for having a good knowledge of skincare products.
Discover definitions of the primary categories of skin care ingredients by their function/use.
Below you will find a list of some ingredients that may cause skin damage from prolonged use or which are simply unnecessary.
Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) is a popular ingredient that is used by a large number of manufacturers. It is trendy because it is one of a small number of agents (maybe even the only agent) that has been proved to produce skin tightening and to reduce facial sag (to a low level).