How To Read Skincare Ingredient Labels : 3 Tips

How To Read Skincare Ingredient Labels : 3 Tips

What do you focus on when buying a new skincare product? Is it the look of the packaging? The claims on the bottle? Maybe it's a well known brand, or a must have beauty product. In reality, the most important thing to consider when buying a skincare or cosmetic product is the ingredient list. That is in fact where all the beauty and magic of a product lies. Reading product labels can be quite daunting - they are oftentimes filled with long, hard to pronounce scientific names. However, it is crucial to understand how to read these labels because product marketing can oftentimes be quite misleading. Products can have misleading claims, can be ineffective or can even have harmful ingredients. Today we will break down what to look for when reading an ingredients list and make you an ingredient list reading pro! 

We want to put out a disclaimer that not every chemical or synthetic ingredient is actually harmful - in fact, there are several ingredients that are man-made and not harmful. At Afiya Beauty, we choose to use botanical -powered ingredients because we believe the solutions to most skincare concerns exist in nature. We also believe in using waterless formulations, not only for the benefits of the environmental impact, but also to allow us to minimize use of preservatives. 


1. INCI Names 

Every ingredient, including natural ones - have an INCI name. INCI stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. This is an internationally recognized system for naming and classifying cosmetic ingredients. Ingredients must have their scientific name and botanical ingredients and extracts are written in their latin name. That is why shea butter is written as “butyrospernum parkii” on a label, in order for it to be consistent across countries and languages. 

The issue with INCI is that the average consumer is most certainly not well versed in this terminology. It is mandatory for brands to declare the ingredients in their products, which does allow some level of transparency. However, the added step of having to research what each ingredient and its purpose can be tedious, which is where harmful or ineffective ingredients can hide. 

There are several resources available to help us understand these ingredients. We use EWG skin deep database, and Paula's Choice ingredient directory, as well as the Think Dirty app. Blk + Grn, a wellness space and marketplace for black owned beauty, has their own list called “the toxic twenty” - which they refer to as their list of ingredients that should never be included in the products that we use everyday. The great thing about these resources is that they not only explain the use of each ingredient, they also rate how harmful they are to health.  The more you start to become familiar with these ingredients, the easier it is for you to recognize the big no-nos. 


2. Concentration Levels 

 Does a face serum really have enough of an active ingredient to boost radiance, or is there just a tiny amount in it, used for marketing purposes? The ingredient list will tell you. As a rule of thumb, the products appear in order of highest to lowest amount in a formulation. If the first ingredient is “aqua” - then you know that this product is made mostly from water (in fact, some products are made from over 90% water). The first five ingredients are a helpful tool to determine the bulk of a product formulation, and therefore the effectiveness of a product. It is not to say that smaller concentrations means that it is not effective - there are several active ingredients that are only considered safe in small concentrations. However, if a product has mostly emulsifying agents, water and preservatives in higher concentrations, and active ingredients come after, then it's safe to assume they are not as effective as they may claim.


3. Ingredient Purposes and Preservatives


Ingredients serve several purposes in formulations. Although we tend to focus on the active ingredients that solve the concerns we have, other types of ingredients exist for several reasons. For example, there are emulsifying agents - ones that allow the ingredients that wouldn’t normally combine to blend together. There are ingredients that enhance texture, make products foam or lather, give fragrance and colour, enhance skin absorption and most notably, there are preservatives. Preservatives not only prevent harmful bacteria and microbes from growing, they also extend the shelf life of a product and prevent rancidity.

To put it simply, any product that includes water (aqua) in the formulation, must include preservatives, due to water’s ability to be a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, mould and other microorganisms. Most creams, lotions, shampoos, conditioners and serums are water-based formulations.  Preservatives are essential in many cosmetics, as they maintain the safety and shelf life of a product. There are some chemical and natural preservatives that are considered to be safe, however many of the commonly found preservatives, such as parabens, are considered toxic. Research has shown that parabens can mimic the effects and disrupt  hormones and have been linked to certain cancers. As a rule of thumb, avoid anything that contains the word “paraben”, they usually precede with “Methyl”, “propyl” “butyl” etc. 

Preservatives are far from the only toxic cosmetic ingredients. Another example is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), an emulsifying agent which is used in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes,  to give the lathering effect. This is what we associate with the clean, stripped feeling. SLS is linked to skin irritation, itching, acne and eczema, as well as carcinogenic effects



The Final Takeaway 

Learning about cosmetic ingredients can be quite overwhelming and terrifying at first - the point is not to scare you and make you overhaul your entire beauty cabinet. It is important to just start to notice what makes up the products that we use everyday, and slowly start to substitute them with better options over time. 

With the rise of the clean beauty movement, many consumers are demanding more transparency and regulation of harmful ingredients in cosmetics. Several clean beauty brands are emerging to fill that gap, and several large companies are changing their formulations to fit the demands of consumers. Although a lot of it appears to be “greenwashing” - meaning a company providing false or misleading claims about how clean their products really are, we are still starting to move in the right direction.

We hope this guide sheds some light on the ingredients list and help make this task less daunting for you. Always make sure to do your research to ensure that you are using safe and effective products. The biggest takeaway from this article is that good ingredients make good products. Happy shopping!




*image courtesy of @fromsandyxo