Deciphering a Skin Care Product's Ingredients

Most skin care 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.

Skin care 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. Skin care 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 skin care products. This means that your first step when deciphering the label is to work out if there are any proven active ingredients on the list. If you are not sure of 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 level of concentration 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 it is at the very end of a long list it is unlikely to have high enough a concentration to be of much value. Certain active ingredients like estrogens, can be effective in trace amounts, but most need a reasonably high level of concentration to be useful. One example would be vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) which needs to make up at least 10 per cent of the compound to be of value. The ingredients position in the list should give you a general idea as to its concentration which in turn will give you an idea as to whether it will be effective or not. 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 that is commonly found in skin care 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 but 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 what the level of their concentration in the product.
  • Any ingredient that is 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.
  • There are some ingredients that can come in multiple forms. An example of this is Vitamin A that can be used in a product as retinal, teinol 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 is examine the ingredients that are present in the highest concentrations and make sure that they agree with your skin. You should stay away from things that you know irritate your skin due to allergy or otherwise. You should avoid comedogenic ingredients if you are prone to acne. There are also certain ingredients that are used in skin care 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 as much as you can about what a person eats or puts on their body. There are a number of different things that will determine if a skin care product that is applied directly to the skin will have an anti-aging effect:
Discover definitions of the primary categories of skin care ingredients by their function/use.
On this page, 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 skin care ingredient that is used by a large number of manufacturers. It is very popular 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).