Product Ingredients Lists - Rocket Science?

Believe it or not, ingredients labels are easily decipherable. Although the long list of chemical names and formulations might seem daunting and incomprehensible, there are a few tips, alongside several frequently seen ingredients, which help even the least chemistry savvy person become knowledgeable.

The “golden rule” when it comes to ingredients lists is the fact that ingredients are listed in decreasing order. Pay attention to what is listed first. If you are in the market for a new Vitamin C serum, yet ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is listed last on the list, you should seek out another product. This fact goes for any type of targeted treatment product – look where the active ingredients are listed.

The first part of the ingredients list is where your base ingredients are found—think these as carrier ingredients. They hold the active ingredients in their purest form, as most in their pure form are too concentrated for cosmetic purposes. It is after these base ingredients (such as water [eau], oil, and silicone) that you will find what will builds the constituents of the product: emollients / conditioners, actives, stabilizers / preservatives, alcohols, and filler ingredients.


  1. Water (Eau) is often the first ingredient listed. The next few ingredients will confirm if it is indeed the base. If you see active ingredients or solvents such as butylene glycol next, it is likely water is the base.
  2. Oil based products are easier to identify: you will see base oils (also known as carrier oils), such as jojoba, grapeseed, avocado, sweet almond, or apricot kernel at the top of the ingredients list.
  3. One oil to always shy from is mineral oil (synonymous with liquid paraffin, liquid petrolatum and paraffin oil.) This oil is commonly known to clog pores and promote/prolong acne.
  4. Silicones, often seen in makeup products are also quite easy to identify, as most have the suffix “-cone.” Examples include: dimethicone, pheyl trimethicone, methicone and cyclomethicone. A common example that strays from this general rule is cyclopentasiloxane. Silicones give products slip and leave a silky feeling upon application.

Emollients / conditioners: fats or oils that help to soften and retain moisture in the skin by creating a protective barrier on top of the epidermis. This helps to reduce water loss. Examples include:

    1. Shea butter: also known as butyrosperum parkii, shea butter is a vegetable fat composed of fatty acids. Very nourishing on the body, yet high amounts are not recommended for acne prone or oily skins.
    2. Beeswax: a common binder and emulsion stabilizer; high amounts are not recommended for acne prone skins.

Actives: the ingredients that produce an effect and relate to the claim the product might be making (i.e. brightening, hydrating, purifying). Without active ingredients, a skincare product could be deemed useless. Examples include:

    1. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid): one of the best known antioxidants for reducing photo-damage, sunspots and helping to brighten hyperpigmentation.
    2. Hyaluronic acid: also known as sodium hyaluronate. This often-discussed polysaccharide can hold up to 10x its weight in water, making it the ultimate humectant and hydration-boosting ingredient.
    3. Plant extracts and oils: often provide added antioxidants and help to balance out the effects of concentrated active ingredients. Think of aloe, green tea extract, algae, rosehip, avocado oil, etc. Plants are some of the most nutrient dense ingredients.  
    4. Peptides: the building blocks of proteins, such as collagen, which are skin restoring. You might see peptides such as Palmitoyl Tripeptide-1 (note that you will often see the “peptide” suffix.)
    5. Retinols: also known as Vitamin A and retinoids. Retinols are one of the few ingredients scientifically proven to reverse the signs of aging and skin damage.

Alcohols: there is a difference between fatty alcohols, which are stabilizing ingredients in products, and SD (or denatured) alcohol. Always shy away from denatured alcohol at the top of an ingredients list.

    1. Fact: butylene glycol, a common ingredient seen in nearly every skincare product is actually a small organic alcohol. Not every alcohol is bad.

A note on parabens: Certain parabens and preservatives, such as phenoxyethanol, are not permitted to be in products at an amount greater than 1%. If your product contains parabens, use this ingredient as a place maker. If you see an important active ingredient listed after phenoxyethanol, this means it is in the product in an amount less than 1%. Some ingredients, such as certain retinols, can be effective at percentages less than 1%, but these exceptions are few and far between.

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