When you read a label on a cosmetic product what should you be looking for?
What do all of those ingredients really mean?
Here are some rules, definitions and explanations to help decipher the world of words in beauty.
Reading a skincare label is like trying to decipher a foreign language, leaving you confused and frustrated. Worse, you end up buying an ineffective or inappropriate product. Here are five important strategies for reading a label so you can shop smarter.
Rule 1: Understand common terminology. Some terms are straightforward, but others might not mean what you think. In fact, many terms we commonly see on skincare products aren’t regulated or defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that skincare companies can have different definitions for these terms. Here, we reveal the real meanings behind common terms:
Oil-free. – ”oil-free” originally described products that contained no industrial mineral oil. Long ago, mineral oil was “extremely thick, impure and clogging,” However, industrial oils are no longer used in skincare and cosmetics. Today, the term means that a product isn’t oil-based, making them ideal for oily or acne-prone skin.
Non comedogenic. This means that ingredients have been tested and don’t appear to clog pores.
Hypoallergenic. Most people assume that a “hypoallergenic” product won’t cause an allergic reaction and is better for sensitive skin. Though it does mean that these ingredients have a lower chance of causing allergic reactions than others, everyone won’t react to an ingredient in the same way. Instead of looking for “hypoallergenic” on the label, let your past experience with products guide your purchase. Look at the ingredients on the label to see if they’ve irritated your skin in the past. Also, when starting any new product, do a patch test and watch for reactions within 24 hours.
Alcohol-free. These products don’t contain ethyl alcohol (also known as SD Alcohol), an ingredient that’s typically too harsh and drying on the skin. However, alcohol-free products can still contain fatty alcohols, which are actually beneficial to the skin.
Dermatologist-recommended (or dermatologist-tested). Any product can make this claim — even if one dermatologist has tried the product or used it on a single patient. Thus, these labels don’t mean that the product is recommended by all dermatologists to treat all patients.
Natural. No federal guidelines dictate exactly what “natural” means or what percent of the ingredients must come from natural sources. Also, natural ingredients aren’t inherently superior to synthetic ingredients. Natural products can also cause allergic reactions or irritate the skin. Common irritating culprits include rosemary, chamomile, mint and lemon. Natural products can contain synthetic ingredients, too.
Organic. In theory, this label means that ingredients have been grown organically, without the use of pesticides or chemical processing. But, as is the case with natural products, there are no standards for defining “organic” and the term isn’t controlled by the government. Essentially, skincare companies can use the term as they please.
Skin organics. This is a newer term you might see on skincare, it actually doesn’t mean anything at all.
Rule 2: Know the different types of ingredients.
Ingredients fall into many categories, which have their own unique purposes. Here’s a selection of types:
Humectants bring moisture to skin’s upper layers. Examples include glycerin, urea, panthenol and ceramides.
Emollients make skin feel smoother, filling in cracks or rough spots caused by dryness or irritation. Popular emollients are oils from plants and fruits, like grapes, avocados, almonds, coconuts and sunflowers. Some alcohols (like cetyl alcohol and isostearyl alcohol) are also emollients.
Occlusives create a layer of “film on the skin to prevent moisture from escaping,” But they can make skin cells clump together, clog pores and cause acne. Common occlusives include paraffin, mineral oil, cetyl palmitate and dimethicone.
Surfactants promote lather and foaming action in cleansers. They also make creams easier to apply. Examples include ammonium laurel sulfate, cocamidopropyl betaine and ingredients ending in “stearates.”
Botanicals are derived from plants and/or trees. Examples include aloe vera and tea tree extract.
Vitamins protect against free radicals, sun damage, moisture loss and environmental threats and encourage healthy cell renewal. Vitamins can be listed under different names on product labels: Vitamin A is retinol; vitamin C is ascorbic acid; and vitamin E is tocopherol.
Acids slough off dead, dry skin to reveal a fresh, smooth complexion. These include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic or lactic acids, and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid.
Rule 3: Identify (and understand) active ingredients. When choosing your product, look for active ingredients that are known for effectively treating your particular concern. This way you avoid the marketing hype and let the active ingredients speak for themselves.
For instance, years of research have shown that AHAs are potent exfoliants that slough off dead skin cells. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are also effective ingredients, which treat acne.
Rule 4: Pay attention to the order of ingredients.
Some companies might highlight certain natural ingredients on the front of the product, but the ingredients label can tell a different story. In reality, these products might contain a negligible amount of the ingredient. So focusing on the order of ingredients is key to knowing if you’re getting an effective product.
The general rule of thumb is that ingredients that are present in high concentrations will be listed at the beginning of the label. Because many products are water-based, water is often the first ingredient, and may be followed by oils like mineral oil or petrolatum. Ingredients present in lower concentrations are usually included toward the end of the list.
However, there are several exceptions to the rule:
“If one of the ingredients is classified as a drug, then the drug is listed prior to all other ingredients regardless of its concentration,”
Fragrances, dyes and colors are often the last ingredients listed, no matter what concentrations are present.
Ingredients below 1 percent can be listed in any order, but they must be listed after ingredients that are at or above 1 percent. Keep in mind that active ingredients don’t have to be listed toward the top of the list. Some ingredients are effective at 1 to 2 percent, such as salicylic acid, while other ingredients, like vitamin C, are potent at 10 to 15 percent concentrations or higher.
Rule 5: Watch for possible irritants.
You might want to stay away from these ingredients, especially if you have sensitive skin:
Sulfates. Like surfactants, sulfates allow shampoos and cleansers to foam up and remove oil. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a common ingredient, which can exacerbate dryness and irritation.
Parabens. These commonly used synthetic preservatives attack bacteria, mold or other microbes that can spoil a product. Most people won’t have an adverse reaction to parabens. But, if you’d like to avoid these preservatives, look for the following on the label: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben and Butylparaben.
Artificial colors and fragrances. These ingredients have no benefit for your skin, and they can lead to sensitivity, irritation and breakouts. To avoid colors, look for FD&C or D&C on the label.
A note on sunscreen
Since sunscreen is key to maintaining younger-looking, healthy skin, it’s important you’re grabbing the right bottle. Here’s how to be sure:
SPF (sun protection factor). Not sure what SPF to get? Multiply the SPF by how many minutes it takes your unprotected skin to burn. This number tells you how many minutes you can stay in the sun before burning. Do you usually burn in 10 minutes? SPF 15 would keep you from burning for 150 minutes and SPF 30 for 300 minutes.
Note, though, that SPF ratings only describe protection from UVB rays (linked to sunburn and skin cancer), not UVA rays (linked to premature aging and some skin cancers). SPF 15 blocks out about 93 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 30 blocks out approximately 97 percent. SPF 15 is OK for everyday wear, but choose a higher SPF when you’ll be outdoors for long periods of time.
Broad-spectrum protection. Opt for broad-spectrum sunscreens, which protect against UVA and UVB rays. Make sure the label lists ingredients like oxybenzone, octyl salicylate, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or avobenzone . Avobenzone- can cause irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin.