How to Read Skincare Labels

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Do you ever look at the ingredients label before purchasing a new skin care product?

If not, you really should.


Because everything from clever wording to luxurious packaging can often make you perceive a product to be much more beneficial for you than it really is.

In order to really know what you’re applying onto your skin, it is so important that you always read, and understand, the label.

The Ingredients

The main reason to read the label of a product is to find out exactly which ingredients have been used.

Why does this matter?

Because some ingredients are extremely low quality, and can lead to a range of skin issues.

These include:

  • Fragrance/ Perfume – this is a blanket term that covers hundreds of different chemicals, meaning that you will never really know what has actually been used in a product containing a fragrance. In fact, some harsh preservatives can sometimes also count as a fragrance, making it seem as though a perfumed product does not contain any synthetic preservatives, when really these are hidden under the fragrance umbrella term 
  • Parabensrefers to several different chemicals that are used to preserve the life of just about any type of skin care product. Parabens mimic the hormone estrogen in the body, disrupting the body’s natural hormonal balance. This is why there is a strong link between parabens and breast cancer
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)common skin irritants and allergens
  • BHA and BHTsynthetic preservatives that are likely carcinogens, while also disrupting hormones and possibly leading to liver damage

Some people may say…

If you can’t pronounce, or have never heard of, an ingredient, then this means that it isn’t going to be good for your skin.

Is this true?

Not at all.

It is highly unlikely that you have heard of every single beneficial skin care ingredient out there, so if you are unsure as to what an ingredient listed on a label actually is, simply whip out your phone and do a quick online search.

Alternatively, many beauty bloggers have created “cheat sheets” when it comes to deciphering ingredients, and these can be useful to have on hand when purchasing a new skin care product.

There are also many beneficial ingredients out there that are known by longer, more obscure, names.

While some of these names may sound slightly scary, they actually describe some fantastic ingredients, such as:

  • Ascorbic Acid, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate – these all refer to derivatives of vitamin C, which benefits the skin in numerous ways
  • Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate – refers to licorice extract, which is a great natural ingredient for fading dark spots and evening out the skin tone
  • Hyaluronic Acid, Sodium Hyaluronate, Glycoaminoglycana humectant that is naturally found in the body, and is fantastic for hydrating the skin
  • Niacinamide, Nicotinic Acid derivatives of vitamin B3, which will brighten and revitalize your skin
  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acidspowerful skin-enhancing exfoliants
  • Alpha-Lipoic Acida potent antioxidant that is both oil and water soluble, meaning that it can enter into every part of your skin cells
  • Dimethylaminoethanol, DMAEnaturally produced in the brain and can dramatically minimize fine lines and wrinkle

This is also the case when it comes to botanicals, as these are usually listed by their longer and official Latin names.

The Order of Ingredients

Companies are required to list the ingredients in a cosmetics product in an order that depicts their concentration.

Most of the time, the ingredients that are used the most are at the top of the list, while those that are used in smaller amounts are at the bottom.

This is a great way to determine whether the marketing hype on the front of the product is really true…


Well, to begin with, many companies will state that a product contains a certain ingredient, but only use it at a concentration of 0.01%.

This is all that is legally required for a product to state that it contains a specific ingredient, even if it does not contain enough of the ingredient for it to actually make a difference.

However, if an ingredient is higher up in the ingredients list, then chances are that it has been used in larger amounts.

Now to make things a little more complicated…

Active ingredients don’t have to follow the same rules.

Aren’t all ingredients active ingredients?

No. Active ingredients are the ones that really work the magic, while many of the other ingredients will be used to carry and deliver the active ingredients into your skin.

For example, the active ingredient in a sunscreen would be the one that provides UV filtering, while the active ingredient in a skin serum would be the antioxidants.

On a skin care label, active ingredients can be listed before all the other ingredients.

However, when this usually happens, they also tend to be accompanied by a percentage, to let you know the concentration that has been used.

Think you need a high concentration in order for an ingredient to work?

This isn’t really true.

While it does depend on the ingredient, active ingredients tend to be quite potent in themselves, meaning that relatively low concentrations are needed in order for an effect to be visible. Any more than this and you may end up irritating your skin. 

For example, ingredients such as retinol and salicylic acid will usually be formulated into a product at a concentration of less than 2%, but this is all your skin really needs.


Some ingredients are known to be common allergens.

Why are they included in skin care products?

Because they also have some incredible skin-boosting properties.

Many of these common allergens are also natural ingredients, and there is now an increasing demand for these in skin care products.

Examples of common allergens include essential oils and ingredients that have been derived from nuts.

So how do you know if these are included in a product?

By reading the label!

When listed on an ingredients list, these allergens will usually be accompanied by an asterisk, or may be printed in italics.   

If you have sensitive skin, or know that you already have allergies to certain ingredients, it is extremely important to check a cosmetics label for allergens before applying the product to your skin.

Symbols on the Label

In addition to being used to display the ingredients in a product, you will also usually find several symbols on a product label, and these will refer to a number of different things.

One of the most important to pay attention to is the expiry date.

This will usually be depicted by an hourglass symbol, an icon of an open jar, or simply a BBE, which means “best before end”.

The symbol will be next to a number and the letter M, such as 6M or 12M.

What does this mean?

It stands for the number of months a product is good for once it has been opened. You will usually find that products containing more natural ingredients, and less preservatives, have a shorter lifespan, making it important to be aware of this when opening a product.

Why is this important?

Because many people end up using skin care products long after they have expired.

Not only does this mean that the active ingredients in the product will not be very effective, but it could actually be doing your skin more damage than good, due to the way in which certain ingredients oxidize after a length of time.

Here are a few other symbols you may see on a skin care label:

  • Recyclable – the three arrows indicate that the packaging of the product can be recycled
  • A green circle with an arrow insidepopular in Europe, this means that a financial contribution has been made for each piece of packaging created
  • USDA Organicmeets the organic certification standards of the United States
  • Veganthe product has not been created with any animal-derived ingredients
  • Cruelty Free – the product, as well as each of the ingredients within it, has not been tested on animals

Products for Acne

When it comes to formulating products to treat acne, FDA regulations and requirements are very strict, and rightly so.

However, this does mean that there are actually many products out there that are packed with acne-fighting ingredients, but do not actually claim on their packaging that they are able to tackle acne.

The only way to know this is by taking a look at the label.

If you are looking for a product to treat acne, keep an eye out for the following ingredients:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Alpha hydroxy acids
  • Clay
  • Sulfur
  • Charcoal

Another sign that a product will be suitable for those with acne is if it states that it is designed for oily skin.

Oily skin is the skin type that is most prone to acne, due to the increased oil production leading to clogged pores.

If a product is able to tackle this excess oil production, then it could really go a long way in reducing breakouts.

Dermatologist Tested and Dermatologist Endorsed

When a product states that it has been dermatologist tested or dermatologist endorsed on its label, this immediately makes the consumer think that the product is of a higher quality.

Skincare label - 'Dermatologically Tested'

The fact that it has been granted a seal of approval from a skin care professional only means that this is a beneficial product, right?


All that is needed in order for a label to state this is a dermatologist testing the product on their own skin, or perhaps the skin of a patient. If no reactions are witnessed, the company can then make this claim on their label.

As you can imagine, this single study definitely does not mean that results are accurate.

In fact, even if a dermatologist tried the product and didn’t like it, a company could still claim that the product has been dermatologist tested.

While there is nothing wrong with purchasing a product that makes this claim, make sure that this is not the sole reason for your purchase.

Other Common Claims

In addition to stating that a product has been dermatologist tested, companies make many other claims on labels when it comes to skin care products.

These include:

  • Hypoallergenic
  • Safe for sensitive skin
  • Allergy-tested

Just about any company can make these claims, as there are no requirements for these claims to actually be validated by the FDA. 

Other claims that do not require proper certification include:

  • Natural
  • Nanoparticles
  • Inactive

Another tricky claim is clinically proven.

What does this actually mean?

It means that a product has been through some type of clinical test. This automatically leads to consumers believing that the product must be completely safe, since it will have been through strict studies.

Unfortunately, this is not at all true.

All it means is that the product has undergone some sort of clinical examination, but it doesn’t actually matter what kind this was, how many people this involved, or how much of the product was actually used.

There are not really many regulations behind usage of this claim, meaning that unless you can find the actual study that was carried out for a certain product, then the clinically proven declaration on the label really does not mean much.

Navigating your way around a skin care label can definitely be tricky, and a quick glance really won’t tell you much.

While you may not usually scrupulously study a skin care label, this is a habit well worth getting into, as you will soon discover so much more about each of the skin care products you use.

Give it a try now, by taking a look at the labels on some of your existing products, and you are likely to encounter a few surprises…

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