SKINCARE 101: Decoding the Ingredient List

Just as we review the nutrition facts on the backs of our favorite foods, it's important to take heed of ingredients found in your personal skin care products. Many of these products contain chemicals that can harm your skin, despite claims that they will turn your acne-prone complexion into clear perfection. However, reading ingredient labels can be complicated and written in scientific language that can be confusing.
You should first be aware that the ingredients are listed in descending order. For example, the first ingredient that is listed in the formula is more prevalent than the second ingredient listed, and so on. However, you cannot determine the actual amount of each ingredient this way. Let's say that the first ingredient is water: one brand may consist of 85 percent water, whereas another might only contain 60 percent. The ingredients can be identical, but the formulation may not be.
The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) is a system of names for waxes, oils, pigments, chemicals and other ingredients found in soaps and cosmetics based on scientific names and other Latin and English words. The INCI makes it difficult to identify natural ingredients. For instance, the term for vitamin E is known as tocopherol and the INCI name for shea butter is butyrospermum parkii butter. Most cosmetic companies abide by this naming. This forces the consumer to remember that L-ascorbic acid is Vitamin C as well as an antioxidant.

The following definitions briefly explain popular descriptions of ingredients:

  • Chirally Correct €” Can be derived from natural or synthetic ingredients. It causes the least amount of irritation and lessens the chance of an adverse reaction. Chirally correct products are always recognizable by the skin's receptors.
  • Natural/Organic €” Created by nature. Contrary to popular belief, natural ingredients can cause irritation much like a synthetic ingredient.  The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the term natural, so keep in mind that any and every company can claim its products are just that. All products that claim to be organic must undergo rgirous vetting and are regulated by government agencies.
  • Artificial €” May contain artificial fragrance and colors; may look or smell similar to natural ingredients but is not recognizable by the skin or body.
Keep in mind you cannot tell how good a product is from the ingredients list alone. It's impossible to determine if the product is worth its high price tag just by reading the ingredient list. While it is important to know what's in every product, the formula is what counts the most. The list of ingredients does not tell you how labor intensive the product is to make€”whether or not it was cold processed or cooked by an automatic cooker; mixed by hand or in a 500 gallon vat; or made fresh to order or pre-made and stored in drums. Bottom line: If a product is very inexpensive, then its quality might be low. It costs a lot to make an exceptional product.”
So the next time you turn over the back of your facial cleanser and squint to read the list of ingredients, understand that skin care is a complicated science if it's going to produce the best results. Being an educated consumer is the best kind of consumer. Your skin would agree.