How to look at an ingredient list. First: don’t panic!

Do you trust advertising implicitly?  I don’t.  You shouldn’t. And if you don’t, you must be able to understand what’s in that jar for which you are ready to pay $100 or more.

The ingredient list on the jar, bottle or box tells you what your skin care product is made of. Are you paying for water? Are you paying 10 times as much as you should?  Do you want to learn how to translate it to plain English?

The ingredient lists on the labels of skin care products look, at first sight, practically undecipherable, and probably just the same at second sight. And yet, it is possible to understand what’s in that product if you really dive in. It helps if you know some chemistry, but if not, you can still work it out with patience, and if all else fails – you can write to me.

A good start is to try and separate the ingredients into two lists: a list of ingredients that make the carrier, be it a cream or serum, and a list of the actives dissolved in the cream or serum. For a very basic cold cream, you will find just a few components: water, mineral oil (very emollient, a skin conditioner), wax (a thickener), and fragrance. For a commercial product, the lists get longer because formulators use a variety of ingredients to improve feel, texture, stability and color.

For example, here is the list of ingredients for Skin Actives’ Canvas Cream, a base cream that works well in many jobs. This formulation doesn’t contain mineral oil, making it lighter and suitable for people with acne. We call it a base cream because we can modify it for any purpose (anti-acne, rejuvenating, etc.) by adding active ingredients. Each ingredient is followed by its purpose.

Note: Ingredients are presented here in lower case, and Latin names of the plants were removed to facilitate reading. INCI nomenclature capitalizes terms in the labels even when in scientific use this is not needed. When the binomial system (Linnaeus) is used, botanical rules are followed.

  • water (formulation base)
  • jojoba seed oil (emollient)
  • sorbitol (water binding and slip – ease of application)
  • butylene glycol (slip)
  • cetyl alcohol (moisturizer and thickener)
  • glyceryl stearate (moisturizer and thickener)
  • PEG-100 stearate (moisturizer and thickener)
  • stearyl alcohol (moisturizer and thickener)
  • sesame seed oil (moisturizer)
  • sweet almond oil (moisturizer)
  • avocado oil (moisturizer)
  • sodium hyaluronate (water binding, nutrient)
  • polysorbate 20 (emulsifier)
  • citric acid (to adjust pH)
  • dimethicone (skin conditioner, slip agent)
  • carbomer (thickener)
  • aminoethyl propanol (antimicrobial preservative)
  • phenoxyethanol (antimicrobial preservative)
  • methylparaben (antimicrobial preservative)
  • propylparaben (antimicrobial preservative)

If we look at a cosmeceutical, a skin care product formulated to rejuvenate the skin or for any other non medical function, things get even more complicated. Here we have the ingredients of the base cream and the actives mixed in the list and we have to go one by one to see what they are and what they are doing in the formulation. Also, the names come separated by just a comma, to save space on the label.

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.

Why is this more complicated than the ingredient list for a cold cream (water, mineral oil, wax and fragrance)? There are several reasons, let’s examine them.

The ingredients in the base cream have been changed into a more long-lasting, lighter formulation: water, glycerin, isopropyl palmitate, butylene glycol, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, cetearyl alcohol, phenoxyethanol, dimethicone, caprylyl glycol, palm oil, carbomer, disodium EDTA, polysorbate 20, sorbic acid.

The list still includes oil and water, plus emulsifiers and thickeners. It also includes preservatives to extend the shelf life of the product: phenoxyethanol, disodium EDTA, polysorbate 20, sorbic acid. Mineral oil has been replaced by palm oil, glyceryl  stearate, isopropyl palmitate, cetearyl alcohol, caprylyl glycol and dimethicone (a silicone), which will result in a lighter, less occlusive cream.

In this list there are chemicals that did not exist in the year 1900, they were created by chemists. Carbomer, a thickener, is an example; another is polysorbate 20, an emulsifier. Butylene glycol will help dissolve other ingredients. Many ingredients do double or triple jobs, but we can still identify them as solvents, thickeners, emulsifiers, and/or antimicrobial preservatives. You can find the chemical structure and function of each ingredient on the internet. Many university websites have their own educational sites, and Wikipedia is an excellent source for chemistry information. For example, Wikipedia gives this description of cetearyl alcohol: “cetostearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol or cetylstearyl alcohol is a mixture of fatty alcohols, consisting predominantly of cetyl and stearyl alcohols, and is classified as a fatty alcohol. It is used as an emulsion stabilizer, opacifying agent, and foam-boosting surfactant, as well as an aqueous and nonaqueous viscosity-increasing agent. It imparts an emollient feel to the skin and can be used in water-in-oil emulsions, oil-in-water emulsions, and anhydrous formulations. It is commonly used in hair conditioners and other hair products.”

Don’t get discouraged by the technical description and the unknown names. Try to get a general idea of what the ingredient is and why it is present in the formulation. It would be nice to find all of these terms in a glossary on the internet, and you can, but often, instead of an actual definition, you will find advertising or a political agenda. Generic websites may be related to pressure groups that will try to convince you that many materials are dangerous based on their own vested interests and very non-scientific methods. Avoid them unless you know enough chemistry to tell what is information and what is misinformation.

The perfect place to find all this information would be the INCI dictionary. Unfortunately, this dictionary, in several editions and now on-line, has been priced for the cosmetic industry by the organization that produces it, the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC, previously known as CTFA) at $1000 to $9000 per annual subscription. This is unfortunate, because the websites that are free and convenient for consumers to read are the ones offering scary definitions of ingredients (these websites belong to non-profit companies that make money by other means). The PCPC is adding information gradually on its new website, Here you will find a  good part of the dictionary but it may still be not enough to understand what’s going on. At the Skin Actives website, we provide a glossary that includes the actives we use in our products, but the industry uses many thousands of ingredients and it’s not practical to include them all.

So go ahead and use Wikipedia and with time you’ll become familiar with most ingredient names, because most commercial products are variations of the same basic formulations. The novelty is generally reserved to the actives. We will discuss these in a future post.

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