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How to Understand Cosmetic Ingredient Lists

How to Understand Cosmetic Ingredient Lists

We wish we could teach everyone how to make sense of the information contained on a cosmetic ingredient list. Why? Because therein lie the facts about the effectiveness and function of almost any skincare product you’re considering. However, deciphering an ingredient list isn’t easy, especially if you don’t have a background in cosmetic science or cosmetic formulation.

Not to worry—the research and insider formulation facts we’ve compiled will help you decipher the ingredient lists of your skincare and makeup products, so you can make informed decisions and take the best possible care of your skin!

Why Analyzing an Ingredient List Is Complicated

The biggest barrier to making sense of ingredient lists is the sheer number of ingredients that can be included in a formulation. There are thousands of ingredients and an incalculable number of potential mixtures of those ingredients, all of which create a variety of different textures and can impact how well a product can work on skin, or even if it will work.

Adding to the complexity are the chemical names of the ingredients, which, for many, are easy to misidentify (given how similar some ingredients appear by name) or to misunderstand their function in a formula. And, really, who wants to spend hours sorting this stuff out? (OK, we do, but, hey, that’s our job!)

Natural plant extracts aren’t necessarily any easier to decipher than other ingredients—in fact, some natural ingredients have names that are just as long and unpronounceable, such as Gaultheria procumbens or Simmondsia chinensis. Another prime example of an ingredient whose names can lead to confusion is vitamin C. It’s one of many great ingredients for skin, but it comes in more than a dozen different forms with overly technical names, each with its own unique functions and benefits in a formulation.

Why You Shouldn’t Always Believe the "Controversial" Hype

In addition to the difficulty of making sense of an ingredient label, there are also the horror stories, posted on social media and on various websites, about certain ingredients being toxic, cancer-causing, or some other dire threat to one’s health—with the onus almost always on synthetic ingredients being bad, while natural ingredients are painted as better or safer.

Almost without exception, the fear-mongering information spread about some ingredients, such as parabenssiliconesmineral oilsulfates, and others, have been thoroughly debunked as hoaxes or misinterpretations (whether accidental or intentional) of research findings.

Authentic scientific and balanced information is out there, but it remains an ongoing effort for us to filter through the research, and the interpretation of the research results, to get to the truth. Getting to the truth, and understanding it when you get to it, is not something that a consumer can just pick up, or even find the time to figure out, especially when it’s easier and quicker to just believe the headlines! Many people, even those within the cosmetics industry, have difficulty in this area, and so fall prey to the misleading or false information, just like everyday consumers. Not surprisingly, this entire issue can become very confusing very quickly!

Tips for Understanding an Ingredient List

Like we said, it’s not easy to understand an ingredient list. To help with that, here are a couple pointers that will make it easier, even if you don’t know exactly what every single ingredient does…

Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary. If you don’t mind doing a bit of detective work on your own, you can use our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary to search for a product’s ingredients by name. The dictionary summarises the research supporting the ingredients’ functions and benefits (or lack thereof) as well as their potential to harm skin, if such a risk is present.

You can use this resource to clear up much of the confusion about different types of ingredients, including many of the controversial ones you’re often told to avoid. This will help you understand why you should, or shouldn’t, avoid them.

You also might find it useful to look up the ingredients you already think you know about. For example, people tend to view "natural" ingredients as inherently safer because, well, they’re natural. Our years of research, however, has shown time and time again that there are good and bad natural ingredients, just as there are good and bad synthetic ingredients.

Common Irritating Ingredients to Avoid. Get familiar with this list, which you’ll find in our article, Skin Irritation: Your Worst Enemy. Although it’s not all-encompassing, it does include the irritating ingredients that you’re most likely to see in cosmetics products.

Note: These irritating ingredients are of greatest concern when they appear at the beginning of an ingredient list. However, there is no hard and fast rule for where the cutoff for concern ends—depending on the product, it could mean among the top three to five ingredients for something like a cleanser or shampoo (where it’s common for around 85% of the formula to be water), versus around the first 10 or so ingredients for other types of products like a moisturiser or serum.

Picture an ingredient list

Active versus Inactive Ingredients

There’s a lot of confusion about what constitutes an "active" ingredient in a cosmetic product. Some people think that any ingredient notable for its ability to improve skin is an “active” ingredient. This is actually not true—there are very specific rules around what ingredients are deemed "active," as we explain below…

You know those ingredients you see at the top of some ingredient labels with percentages by them? Those are the "active ingredients," which in a cosmetics product are deemed to have a pharmacological effect that is documented by scientific evaluation and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use within a precise set of regulations. In addition, the percentage and exact function of each active ingredient must be approved by the FDA. Products in this category are referred to as "over-the-counter" or "cosmetics that are also drugs"; the portion of an ingredient list with the active ingredients is referred to as the "Drug Facts" label. [1]

Active ingredients include such substances as sunscreen agents, skin-lightening ingredients (specifically, hydroquinone), and anti-acne ingredients, such as sulfur and benzoyl peroxide. Whether an ingredient is categorised as active depends on what claims are being made for the product and on what the FDA permits for that specific ingredient. For example, a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliant contains salicylic acid, but if the product does not make an anti-acne claim, it does not need to list salicylic acid as an "active" ingredient. [2]

Inactive ingredients are any ingredients that the FDA does not consider “active.” While such ingredients still must have an established record of safety, they are not regulated in the same manner as active ingredients, nor does the FDA require such ingredients to be proven safe prior to use. Instead, the major requirement is that "inactive" ingredients be listed in descending order of concentration; therefore, the ingredient with the largest concentration is listed first, then the next largest, and so forth, if present at a concentration of at least 1% in the product. Ingredients present at concentrations less than 1%, however, can be listed in any order thereafter. [3]

Note: If an over-the-counter drug product is made in the United States, it is acceptable to list the inactive ingredients alphabetically, not in order of concentration; however, that makes it much more difficult for consumers to know how much of a good (or bad) inactive ingredient they’re getting.

Don’t misinterpret "inactive" to mean that such an ingredient is not as good or as potent. There are tons of superstar anti-ageing ingredients that don’t require Drug Facts labeling, but that do have peer-reviewed research showing they are extremely effective (and safe), for example, at reducing wrinkles and/or other signs of sun damage.

The same goes for many of the supporting ingredients in anti-acne products and skin-lightening products—just because they don’t list any actives doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t work. It simply comes down to whether the combination of ingredients in the product and the claims made for it fall under the FDA’s Drug Facts regulations.

Still Can’t Make Sense of an Ingredient List?

It’s a reality—analyzing a product’s formula by its ingredient label takes a lot of time, practice, knowledge, and resources. Of course, we’d recommend using Paula’s Choice products for your skin concerns because we’ve already done the extensive ingredient research for you! Paula’s Choice does not—and will not—use any ingredients proven to be unsafe or without a reliable, purposeful function and benefit for skin.

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References Cited:

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetic Labeling Guide. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Nov]. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/Labeling/Regulations/ucm126444.htm.
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetic Labeling Guide–Cosmetics That Are Also Drugs. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Nov]. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/Labeling/Regulations/ucm126444.htm#clgl7.
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetic Labeling Guide–Order of Ingredient Declaration. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Nov]. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/Labeling/Regulations/ucm126444.htm#clgl3.


About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!