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You are here: Skin Care Ingredient Guide >

Unlocking the secrets of a skin care product's ingredient list

The vast majority of skin care products have a complete list of ingredients on the label. Not so much because skin care companies want to enlighten you about their secrets, but because the law called "The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act," requires all ingredients to be listed. The law also provides the listing guidelines.

It is important to understand that FDA views skin care and cosmetics differently than drugs. Before approving a drug, FDA requires that its effectiveness and safety be reasonably well proved. However, none of that is required for skin care products or their individual ingredients. Consequently, no distinction is made between active and inactive ingredients in the labeling guidelines. As a result, a typical ingredient list has all ingredients, whether active or inactive, lumped together without any distinction. Therefore, the first step in your product label investigation should be to figure out if any active (i.e. those proven effective) ingredients are in the list. If you do not know what active ingredients to look for, see the Anti-aging Treatments section of this site and/or Skin Rejuvenation Infopack.

Once you and are satisfied with active ingredients in the list, you need to figure out if they are present in sufficient amounts. If you are in luck, the concentration may be stated on the label, but typically it isn't. As per The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the listing begins with the ingredient present in the largest concentration (typically water, oil and other vehicles) and moves downward, often ending with trace elements. You shouldn't expect an active ingredient to be in the first or second spot, but if it is near the end of a long list, it is most likely present in a very small amount. Admittedly, some active ingredients, such as estrogens, work in trace amounts, but many require a reasonably high concentration to be effective. For example, vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) has to be at least at 10%, and alpha lipoic acid at least at 1%. The position of the ingredient on the list can give you at least a rough idea if its concentration is sufficient. Of course, it is always best to call the company and ask them to provide the exact concentrations.

There are some exceptions to the rule of descending concentrations in the listing.

  • If one of the ingredients is classified as a drug, then the drug is listed prior to all other ingredients regardless of its concentration. A well known example is Retin A, whose active ingredient tretinoin is classified as a drug.
  • Patented or otherwise "secret" formulas do not need to disclose the combination of active ingredients but the company must submit an application to the FDA in order to list the alias instead of disclosing the ingredients on the label.
  • Colors and fragrance are typically listed last, regardless of concentration (although typically their concentration is low anyway).
  • Sometimes active ingredients are listed separately. For example, this is typical for UV blocking ingredients in sunscreens.
  • Any ingredient in concentration below 1% may be listed in any order as long as it is listed after all of the other ingredients present at or above 1%. Unfortunately, there is no guideline to disclose where the 1% cut off exists on the label.
  • Some ingredients can have several related but distinct chemical forms (e.g. vitamin A can be present as retinol, relinal or retinyl palmitate), and so functionally similar forms of an active ingredient may be listed separately as multiple ingredients. Whether it is informative or confusing is debatable and is better decided on a case-by-case basis.

Your final step in investigating the ingredient list is to look at all (or at least the most concentrated) ingredients and make sure they are compatible with your skin. Avoid the ones to which you know you are sensitive, allergic or otherwise individually reactive. If you are prone to acne, take particular care to avoid comedogenic ingredients. Also, some ingredients have significant potential to be harmful to the skin and should be avoided even if you do not have particular sensitivity to them. (See our article about potentially harmful ingredients.)

If you are scientifically inclined or simply want to be thorough, you could look up each ingredient and learn its purpose and caveats. This site provides an Ingredient Glossary. For more comprehensive information, we recommend Milady's Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary .

Before you start looking up specific terms, we recommend that you learn about the main categories of skin care ingredients.


     
     


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