How to Read an Ingredient List

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The ingredient lists on the labels of skin care products look, at first sight, practically undecipherable. However, it is possible to understand what is in that product if you try hard enough. It’s not easy though; it helps if you know some chemistry, but if not, you can still figure it out with some patience ( if all else fails, you can post on our forum and I will help.)

A good start is to try and separate the ingredients into two lists: one of ingredients that make the base cream (or serum) and the second which lists the actives.

For a very basic cold cream you will find just a few components:

Ingredients: Water, Mineral Oil (emollient, skin conditioner,) Wax (thickener,) fragrance.

For a commercial product the list gets longer because formulators use a variety of ingredients to improve the feel, texture, stability and color.

For example, here is the list of ingredients for Skin Active’s Canvas Cream, a base cream that works well in many ways. This formulation does not 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 use (anti-acne, rejuvenating, etc.) by adding active ingredients.

  • Water (aqua)
  • Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil (emollient)
  • Sorbitol (slip and water binding)
  • Butylene Glycol (slip)
  • Cetyl Alcohol (moisturizer and thickener)
  • Glyceryl Stearate (moisturizer and thickener)
  • PEG-100 Stearate (moisturizer and thickener)
  • Stearyl Alcohol (moisturizer and thickener)
  • Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil
  • Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil
  • Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil
  • 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, 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 only 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, Saccharomyces Ferment, Elaeis guineensis (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 it difficult? There are several reasons, let’s examine them one by one.

1) 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, Elaeis guineensis (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.)  The 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.

2) In this list there are chemicals that did not exist in the 1900. 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 in the internet. Wikipedia is an excellent source for chemistry information, and many university websites have their own educational sites.

For example, Wikipedia gives this description of Cetearyl Alcohol:

Cetostearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol or cetylstearyl alcohol[1] 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.[2]

Do not 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 instead of definition you may get advertising or a political speech.  Generic websites may be related to pressure groups that will try to convince you that many materials are “dangerous” based on their own, 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, which exists. Unfortunately, this dictionary, in several editions and now on-line, has been priced for the cosmetic industry by the organism that produces it, the Personal Care  Products Council (PCPC, previously known as CTFA) at $995 per annual subscription (see http://webdictionary.personalcarecouncil.org/jsp/Home.jsp) . This is unfortunate, because the websites offering scary definitions of ingredients are free (these websites belong to “non-profit” companies that make money by other means).  But the PCPC in it new website (http://www.personalcarecouncil.org/) is adding information gradually. At the Skin Actives website (and in this book) we provide a glossary but it includes only the actives we use in our product, because the industry uses  many thousands ingredients in use and it is not practical to include them all in our glossary.

So go ahead and use Wikipedia and with time you will 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.”

Labels 101: How to read an ingredient list

When choosing a recipe for a new dish to serve to my family, I consider many things, but by far the most important thing for me is the list of ingredients. A good product cannot be created out of bad ingredients. With food, it is possible to create a tasty meal out of poor ingredients by loading up the dish with additives—sugars, fats, salt, and monosodium glutamate, for example—that fool our brain into thinking we are eating something really great, when in reality it’s not. To choose the right product or recipe, it is really important to be able to read and understand ingredient labels.

The skin care industry works in a similar way, using advertising, fancy packaging, and paid-for reviews as the equivalent of the fats and sugars in fast food. So how do we know whether a product is the skin care equivalent of a Big Mac or a Cordon Bleu dish? I can tell by reading the ingredient list.

Looking at a generic recipe of cold cream we can understand what there is in it.

Water, Mineral oil, wax, fragrance

Things get complicated when we look at a commercial skin care product.
When I look at the ingredient list of a skin care product, rarely the list is straightforward—simply 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).

I start with an ingredient list that looks like this (this particular example is Perricone MD “Cold Plasma,” but nothing cold or plasma here):

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, Saccharomyces Ferment, Elaeis guineensis (Palm) Oil, Carbomer, Disodium EDTA, Tocotrienols, Copper Gluconate, Polysorbate 20, Sorbic Acid, Tocopherol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Acetyl Hexapeptide-8, Palmitoyl Oligopeptide, Astaxanthin, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3.

 

First I cross out the common components that make up the “base,” a stable emulsion, or blend, containing preservatives that will ensure that the actives  (see Introduction) are in a safe and stable carrier cream, serum, or lotion. Water and glycerin are solvents (substances used for dissolving other substances) and will also provide hydration to your skin, a very 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. 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.

 

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, Saccharomyces Ferment, Elaeis guineensis (Palm) Oil, Carbomer, Disodium EDTA, Tocotrienols, Copper Gluconate, Polysorbate 20, Sorbic Acid, Tocopherol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Acetyl Hexapeptide-8, Palmitoyl Oligopeptide, Astaxanthin, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3.

 

Below in red I’ve marked the ingredients (one of the most common is denatured alcohol) that can damage the skin in one way or another, and in bold the components that may be worthwhile:

 

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, Saccharomyces Ferment, Elaeis guineensis (Palm) Oil, Carbomer, Disodium EDTA, Tocotrienols, Copper Gluconate, Polysorbate 20, Sorbic Acid, Tocopherol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Acetyl Hexapeptide-8, Palmitoyl Oligopeptide, Astaxanthin, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3.

 

This product contains two Vitamin C derivatives (tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate and ascorbyl palmitate). I prefer to use a stable water soluble Vitamin C derivative like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate has not been proven to work as a Vitamin C, but there seems to be evidence that ascorbyl palmitate does. Glycolic acid will do nothing for this product; to do its job it needs to be present at a high concentration and to be non-neutralized.

From the ingredients in the list, I like phosphatidyl choline, a useful lipid (oil) present in lecithin (and in Skin Actives’ ELS serum). We also use DMAE, but with prudence because its mechanism of action is unknown. Docosoheanoic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid, is the active in Schizochytrium oil (in ELS). Retinyl palmitate is 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 in water-based serums.

 

Why is the copper salt in red? We avoid copper except in products used to aid healing, because excess copper can promote protein breakdown.

 

As for synthetic peptides, we skip all those created by the industry on the basis of very weak research done in commercial laboratories. The sequences of most of those peptides are undisclosed, and I don’t like “mystery ingredients.”

 

Careful reading of the above 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 (phosphatidyl choline, docosohexanoic 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 it comes in really great-looking packaging for $200 per ounce. But is it worth using?

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

 

Sometimes ingredient lists are not straightforward. Often, I have to “translate” the list, as many ingredients are hidden behind a Wizard of Oz curtain of Latin or scientific-sounding names. For this translation, I may have to use Google, a process that will highlight misspellings, sometimes unintentional but on occasion used to hide an unsavory ingredient.  If the ingredient is a plant extract, I may be familiar with the plant (I was “raised” as a botanist); if not I search the literature looking for scientific research suggesting that the extract contains valuable chemicals that may influence human skin physiology for the better (many plant chemicals are actually poisonous).

 

Here are some examples: the sophisticated term “Nikkomulese 41” hides the less exciting mix of behenyl alcohol, polyglyceryl-10 pentastearate, and sodium stearoyl lactylate. Fruit flower complex 12 is just that, a mystery complex. Who knows what is in it? Simulgel is a mix of Hydroxyethyl acrylate/Sodium acryloyldimethyltaurate copolymer, Isohexadecane, and Polysorbate 60. That attractive product you can buy at hundreds of dollars for one ounce sounds less attractive now, right?

 

When I tell our readers that I cannot comment on the possible benefits of alguronic acid, it is because alguronic acid does not exist. What does this mean?
1) Alguronic acid does not appear in any scientific publication or Merck index.
2) “Detective work” using the INCI (International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients) shows that the name does not lead to a defined chemical.
3) If there is no definition of the term that leads to a clear composition, it is not possible to comment on it meaningfully.
4) Commercial laboratories giving “independent” evaluations are not trustworthy. There is no peer review or methodology that allows scientists to try to duplicate the experiments and see whether the findings are correct. Apparently, alguronic acid has now been registered as a trade name, but using a scientific-sounding name shows that the intention was to confuse.

Alguronic acid is a new addition to the “walk of shame” ingredients that include Elizabeth Grant’s torricellumn, Amatokin  polypeptide #153, Idebenol, and many others—ingredients that exist only in the imagination of publicists.

Usually, there is a concordance among the ingredients in the list. If you spot an ingredient smelling of pseudoscience (like structured water), the whole ingredient list is likely mostly junk. Sometimes an ingredient looks interesting, and I will read everything there is about it to see whether we should add it to our own products. Because many chemicals are present in a plant extract, I make sure that there are no reports of dangerous chemicals accompanying the “good” one. It is also important to choose the right part of the plant. For example, Coleus oil is extracted from the leaves of the Coleus plant and has antibacterial properties (specifically anti-acne), while forskolin is extracted from the root. Though they come from the same plant, the chemical components are totally different and so is the activity.

Color and Smell

There is a good reason why Skin Actives products do not look the same as most sold in the big stores. Some of the extracts we use have very strong pigments or scents. A product can contain fifty great ingredients, but if it is white in color or does not have a natural scent, you can assume that the concentration of the “useful” ingredients is very low. This is especially true of products billed as “natural” or “organic.” The rules guiding ingredient lists allow this because the ingredients are listed in order of concentration until they reach one percent. Ingredients making up one percent or less of the product can be listed in any order.

Label value

The “1%” rule opens the door to “label value” ingredients, i.e. ingredients added at such low concentrations that they cannot exert any effect (good or bad) on the skin. But they look impressive on the label! This strategy is used for marketing purposes with ingredients that are extraordinarily expensive, or with strong smells or colors that would affect the appearance of the product, or insoluble in solvents compatible with skin physiology.

Once the ingredient list has been “decoded” and simplified, we can finally make an educated decision as to whether the product can do what the marketing materials say it can.

Limitations of the INCI nomenclature

The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, abbreviated INCI, is a system of names for ingredients of soaps and cosmetics. For pure chemicals, the nomenclature is (loosely) based on scientific names, but in the case of botanical extracts it relies firmly on the botanical names (genus and species) of the plants, following the typical Linnaean nomenclature.

INCI names can differ greatly from the systematic chemical nomenclature or from more common trivial names.  INCI names are mandated on the ingredient statement of every consumer personal care product, allowing the consumer to identify the ingredient content.

In the last few months I had my first direct contact with the INCI system, and I thought our clients would be interested to hear about how the system works. For a long time I have been complaining about the nomenclature for proteins, because it does not relate to the scientific nomenclature. I blamed the companies requesting an INCI name for a new ingredient. Well, I was wrong. I requested the very meaningful name “glutaredoxin” for the protein that scientists call “glutaredoxin.” The name assigned by the CTFA? sh-Polypeptide-77.

For our own products, we have decided to use the name glutaredoxin on our labels, because labels are supposed to inform the users, not confuse them.
A preservative by any other name (or no name)…

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2) 
True for roses, but what applies to roses does not necessarily apply to skin care. In a battle that involves pressure groups, environmental politics, fear, and marketing, the first casualty is science.

A prospective client wrote to me demanding to know why we at Skin Actives Scientific continue to use preservatives in our products when she has been doing so well with products that contain no preservatives whatsoever. My answer: the products you have been buying do contain preservatives. Why doesn’t this consumer know this?

There are at least three ways to hide preservatives from consumers:

Hide in plain sight: The preservatives in the formulation are presented as emollients, or skin tighteners, or essential oils, or anything else but what they are: preservatives. This is possible for ingredients that are not well known.

Confuse
the consumer: The preservatives are not explicitly included in the list, but are included (and unmentioned) in the “natural” extracts. For example, if liquorice root is extracted with a solution made of water, propylene glycol, and preservatives such as parabens, all that needs to appear in the ingredient list for the final product is “liquorice extract.” Moreover, if the plant was grown without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, the extract (which is mostly water, propylene glycol, and preservatives) can appear on the label as “organic liquorice extract.” If plant extracts are a good part of the final product, no further preservatives will be needed, because the concentration of preservatives contributed by the “extracts” to the final product will be enough for safe preservation.

Lie: A company adds preservatives and simply lies about the formula (yes, it happens). Unless somebody sends the product to an analytical laboratory to be tested (at a cost of several hundred dollars) nobody will be any wiser.

In short, preservatives, i.e. chemicals added to the formula for the purpose of killing or delaying growth of bacteria and mold, are always present in any formula, whatever the label may say. The notable exception is products completely free of water, because microorganisms need water to grow and divide (Skin Actives’ alpha/beta exfoliator contains no water and no preservatives.)

Resources:

Skin Actives Scientific Glossary

Wikipedia (but beware of articles on trade names; they are actually advertising)