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How To Decode Your Skincare Product Labels

It's time to start side-eyeing those fancy words like "miracle cream" and "elixir of youth" and become more engrossed in the real story behind the product labels.

You know you’ve taken your skincare routine seriously when the glossy marketing claims no longer dazzle you, but the tiny print on the back does. Suddenly, “hydrating essence” or “miracle cream” is less intriguing than the list of ingredients hiding beneath the barcode. That’s good because understanding the labels on skincare products is fundamental to making informed decisions about what you’re putting on your skin.

Still, that’s easier said than done. While you’re squinting at that tiny print on the back, you’re probably wondering: “What on earth is ‘Butylphenyl Methylpropional’?” We’ve all been there. Between cryptic symbols and ingredients that sound like they’re straight out of a science fiction movie, it can feel overwhelming. But breathe easy. I’m here to decode the label on that bottle of your serum without getting lost in translation.

The order of the ingredients

Let’s start with the most basic rule: the order of the ingredients. The ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration. This means the ones that make up most of the product are at the front, and the ones that make up the least are at the bottom. To put this into perspective, the first three to six ingredients typically constitute about 80% of the product.

  • The first ingredients on the label are usually the base of the product. Base ingredients are the ones that form the bulk of the product and provide its texture, consistency, and stability. They usually have little or no effect on the skin, but they can affect how well the product spreads, absorbs, and feels. Some common base ingredients are water, glycerin, dimethicone, cetearyl alcohol, and caprylic/capric triglyceride. Essentially, if a product lists water as the first ingredient, it is water-based; if it lists oils, it’s oil-based.
  • Ingredients near the bottom are present in the smallest amounts. They might be there for preservative purposes, as a fragrance, or to make minor tweaks to the product’s properties.
  • You can find active ingredients anywhere on the ingredients list.

Know the ingredients

  • Ingredients that end in “-ose” (like glucose, fructose, sucrose) are sugars. They have moisturizing and exfoliating effects on the skin.
  • Not all alcohols you see on the ingredients list are bad for your skin. Fatty alcohols like cetearyl, cetyl, and stearyl alcohol can protect the product from bacteria without damaging your skin. They’re alcohols derived from natural fats and oils and are usually safe.
  • Sulfates like “sodium lauryl sulfate” and “sodium laureth sulfate” are detergents added to cleansing products. They can be harsh and drying for some people, so it’s better to avoid them altogether.
  • Ingredients like parabens (e.g., methylparaben, propylparaben) or those that end in “-ben” are often used as preservatives.
  • “Parfum” or “fragrance” is a blanket term that can encompass numerous ingredients, some of which might be allergens.
  • Just because an ingredient sounds chemical or unfamiliar doesn’t mean it’s harmful. For instance, “ascorbic acid” is just vitamin C.
  • Ingredients prefixed with “CI” followed by a number are colorants.
  • For clarity on ingredient concentration, you can contact the brand or look for products that specify the percentage on the label.

Check the active ingredients

Active ingredients are the ones that have an “active” effect on the skin, such as moisturizing, exfoliating, or brightening. You can predict how effective a product will be on your skin by taking a glance at the active ingredients and where they’re listed on the ingredient list.

  • Chemical exfoliants like glycolic acid usually work in concentrations of 10% to 15%. If you find them near the front of the ingredient list, it likely means the product is effective for exfoliation.
  • Retinol is effective even at 0.5% to 1% concentrations. You would normally find it middle or even slightly lower on the list.
  • Peptides might still be effective even if they appear near the bottom of the list since they can work at low concentrations.
  • Not all actives need to be at high percentages to be effective. Salicylic acid works well at concentrations between 0.5% and 2%.
  • Vitamin C (often listed as ascorbic acid, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, or other derivatives) is most effective at concentrations between 10% and 20%, so you should find it at the front of the list.
  • Remember that more is not necessarily better. Higher concentrations of actives can also mean a higher risk of skin irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Potential irritants and allergens

Some ingredients can cause irritation, sensitivity, or allergic reactions in some people, especially those with sensitive or reactive skin. These include fragrances, essential oils, alcohol, sulfates, parabens, phthalates, and artificial colors. You can look for these ingredients near the end of the ingredient list or look for labels that say “fragrance-free”, “alcohol-free”, or “hypoallergenic” on the product. However, remember that these labels are not regulated and don’t guarantee that the product is completely free of irritants or allergens. What you can do to avoid adverse reactions is to patch test the product before using it on your face.

The pH level of the product 

The pH level of a product can affect how well it works on your skin and how compatible it is with other products. The scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral, lower than 7 being acidic, and higher than 7 being alkaline. The skin’s natural pH is around 5.5, which means it is slightly acidic. Products that are too acidic or too alkaline can disrupt the skin’s acid mantle. The presence of certain ingredients can give you a clue about the product’s pH. For instance, ingredients like citric acid, glycolic acid, or lactic acid usually suggest the product might be on the acidic side. On the other hand, ingredients like sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide might indicate the product is more alkaline.

Be aware of misleading skincare claims

Skincare products often use terms like “organic”, “natural”, “dermatologist-tested”, or “clinically proven” to attract customers. However, these terms are not regulated at all. In fact, products that claim to be organic or natural can still contain synthetic ingredients that can irritate the skin or cause allergic reactions. Dermatologist-tested does not mean that the product has been tested by independent experts or that it suits your skin. Claims like “reduces wrinkles” and “fades dark spots” are meaningless without active ingredients that can actually deliver these results. 

Marketing claims are not enough to judge a product’s safety or efficacy. You need to look beyond the claims and read the ingredient list, check the reviews, and do a patch test before using skincare products.

Symbols and their meanings

  • Open Jar Symbol (Period After Opening): This symbol looks like an open jar with a number followed by the letter ‘M’, like “12M”. It indicates how long a product can be used after opening.
  • Leaping Bunny: This symbol means the product hasn’t been tested on animals.
  • UVA Logo: A logo with “UVA” inside a circle indicates that the sunscreen provides UVA protection following EU recommendations.
  • E Mark: A lowercase “e” symbol indicates that the product volume or weight complies with the European Directive’s requirements, ensuring you get the amount stated on the label.
  • Flammable: A flame symbol warns you that the product is flammable and should be stored away from open flames.
  • Recycling Symbol: Indicates the packaging is recyclable.
  • Certified Organic Labels: Various symbols indicate the product meets specific organic standards, such as the USDA Organic.
Who wrote this?
Picture of Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder of Women's Concepts and a certified skincare consultant. She has over five years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and over a decade as an acne sufferer. With a background in dermatological research, Ana brings a wealth of expertise to a diverse range of topics, from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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