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Hard work: how to translate an ingredient list to “plain English”

Looking at a generic recipe of cold cream, it’s easy to understand what’s in it: water, mineral oil, wax, and fragrance. Things get complicated when we look at a commercial skincare product. Following FDA regulations, the ingredient list of a skincare product is an enumeration of the chemicals and plant extracts that make up the product, in order of concentration from the highest, usually water, to the lowest, often preservatives or fragrances and colorings. Let’s take a look at the ingredient list for a product that is currently on the market (marketed as “Award-winning, patented technology powers this comprehensive anti-aging treatment, delivering dramatic, personal results for visibly smoother, firmer, radiant-looking skin.”) for over $150 an ounce:

 

Water, glycerin, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, phosphatidylcholine, isopropyl palmitate, L-tyrosine, butylene glycol, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, cetearyl alcohol, oligopeptide-17, ceteareth-20, magnesium aspartate, zinc gluconate, dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), docosahexaenoic acid, ascorbyl palmitate, phenoxyethanol, dimethicone, caprylyl glycol, glycolic acid, retinyl palmitate, yeast ferment, palm oil, carbomer, disodium EDTA, tocotrienols, copper gluconate, polysorbate 20, sorbic acid, tocopherol, sodium hyaluronate, acetyl hexapeptide-8, palmitoyl oligopeptide, astaxanthin, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3.

 

I will show you how I deal with the long and complicated ingredient lists. First, I cross out the standard components that make up the base (a stable emulsion, or blend, containing preservatives that will ensure that the actives are in a safe and stable carrier cream, serum, or lotion). Water and glycerin are solvents, substances used for dissolving other chemicals, and will also provide hydration to your skin, a useful property, especially in winter and in air-conditioned environments. Isopropyl palmitate is a thickener and emollient. Butylene glycol is another solvent, helping dissolve ingredients that water and glycerol cannot dissolve. In the list (crossed out below), there are more emulsifiers, solvents, and thickeners than in cold cream. The reason for this complexity has to do with what the formulator is trying to achieve: a smooth mixture with a nice texture and feel that will keep the actives well dissolved and stable.

 

Here’s the ingredient list with the components that make up the base crossed out:

 

Water, glycerin, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, phosphatidylcholine, isopropyl palmitate, L-tyrosine,  butylene glycol, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, cetearyl alcohol, oligopeptide-17, ceteareth-20, magnesium aspartate, zinc gluconate, dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), docosahexaenoic acid, ascorbyl palmitate,

phenoxyethanol, dimethicone, caprylyl glycol, glycolic acid, retinyl palmitate,

yeast ferment, palm oil, carbomer, disodium EDTA, tocotrienols, copper gluconate,  polysorbate 20, sorbic acid, tocopherol, sodium hyaluronate, acetyl hexapeptide-8, palmitoyl oligopeptide, astaxanthin, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3.

 

Next, the useful ingredients are bolded:

 

Water, glycerin, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, phosphatidylcholine, isopropyl palmitate,

L-tyrosine,  butylene glycol, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, cetearyl alcohol, oligopeptide-17, ceteareth-20, magnesium aspartate, zinc gluconate, dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), docosahexaenoic acid, ascorbyl palmitate,

phenoxyethanol, dimethicone, caprylyl glycol, glycolic acidretinyl palmitate,  yeast ferment, palm oil, carbomer, disodium EDTA, tocotrienols, copper gluconate,  polysorbate 20, sorbic acidtocopherol, sodium hyaluronate, acetyl hexapeptide- 8, palmitoyl oligopeptide, astaxanthin, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3.

 

Finally, I underline ingredients that can damage the skin in one way or another (Another harmful ingredient very commonly used in skin care is denatured alcohol).

 

Water, glycerin, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, phosphatidylcholine, isopropyl palmitate,

L-tyrosine,  butylene glycol, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, cetearyl alcohol, oligopeptide-17, ceteareth-20, magnesium aspartate, zinc gluconate, dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), docosahexaenoic acid, ascorbyl palmitate,

phenoxyethanol, dimethicone, caprylyl glycol, glycolic acidretinyl palmitate,  yeast ferment, palm oil, carbomer, disodium EDTA, tocotrienols, copper gluconate,  polysorbate 20, sorbic acidtocopherol, sodium hyaluronate, acetyl hexapeptide- 8, palmitoyl oligopeptide, astaxanthin, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3.

 

What did we find out?

This product contains two vitamin C derivatives: tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate and ascorbyl palmitate. For our SAS formulations I prefer to use a stable water soluble vitamin C derivative like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. Why not use tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate?  There is no good proof that this derivative works as a vitamin C. Conversely, there is evidence that ascorbyl palmitate has Vitamin C activity.  It is not enough for a molecule to have “ascorbic” somewhere in its name to be a vitamin C: you need the experiments to show that it is.

 

Glycolic acid will do nothing for this product; to do the job; it needs to be present at a high concentration and to be present as an acid (not neutralized with a base, which makes it into a salt).

 

From the ingredients in the list, I do like phosphatidylcholine, a useful lipid (fat) present in lecithin (and in Skin Actives’ ELS – Every Lipid Serum). We also use DMAE, but with prudence because its mechanism of action is unknown. Docosahexaenoic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid, is the special fat in Schizochytrium oil (which is in ELS). Retinyl palmitate is a retinoid, a form of vitamin A. We also use the antioxidants tocotrienol, tocopherol (the natural form—the synthetic mix can cause allergies), and astaxanthin. We use hyaluronic acid in all our creams and water-based serums.

 

Why is the copper salt underlined? We avoid copper except in products used to aid healing because excess copper can promote protein breakdown. Besides, it will accelerate the oxidation of ascorbic acid derivatives present in the same product. The vitamin C in the product will become a pro-oxidant, rather than the antioxidant it should be!

 

As for synthetic peptides, they may be fashionable, but we skip all those used by the industry based on weak research done in commercial laboratories. The sequences of most of those peptides are undisclosed, and I don’t like mystery ingredients. (Even worse, the industry has started to add fluorinated peptides, just “because” and without any solid research on the long term side effects).

 

A careful reading of the ingredient list suggests that what we have here is a product that will work at firming the skin because it contains DMAE. It will also provide some nutrition (phosphatidylcholine, docosahexaenoic acid, L-tyrosine, etc.) and antioxidants. The retinoid also means that it will help somewhat to promote skin renewal. In short, this is not a bad product, and the packaging looks nice. But at over 150$ for an ounce, is it really worth using?  Using a mediocre product is a wasted opportunity to use a good one.

 

My recommendation in this case: instead of trying to do so many things with one product, use our Vitamin A Cream at night, our Vitamin C Serum once or twice a week, and our DMAE Firming Serum sparingly for special occasions. If you have dry skin, use Every Lipid Serum on its own; if not, you can add it to our Canvas Base cream. These products will provide much better results, and you’ll have enough money left over to go to a fancy restaurant!

1 Comment

  1. […] 3) In the list, separate the “base” from the actives. This is easier said than done if you are not familiar with the chemicals on the list, but usually, the advertisement tells you which are the actives. [If not, you will have to work a bit harder. See my post “Hard work: how to translate an ingredient list”]. […]

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