Understanding how to read the ingredients list when shopping for skin care products makes all the difference in the world to the choices you make, particularly when trying to make a purchase decision based on product claims.
How Are Cosmetic Product Labels Regulated?
How companies formulate their labels is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In order to provide consumer protection, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was enacted:
To protect consumers from unsafe or deceptively labeled or packaged products by prohibiting the movement in interstate commerce of adulterated or misbranded food, drugs, devices, and cosmetics.
The cosmetics marketed in the United States, whether they are manufactured here or are imported from abroad, must comply with the labeling requirements of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling (FP&L) Act, and the regulations published by the Food and Drug Administration under the Authority of these two laws.
Typically, ingredients must be listed in descending order of predominance (most quantity to least quantity) with a few exceptions:
- If the cosmetic is also a drug, the active ingredients and inactive ingredients are listed separate from each other, each in descending order.
- Ingredients present at less than 1% may be listed in any order after the other ingredients
- Color additives may be listed in any order (after all other non-color additive ingredients)
- If an ingredient qualifies (in accordance with FDA guidelines) as a trade secret, it may simply be listed as “and other ingredients.”
That sounds straightforward enough, but what does that really mean to you?
Ingredients appearing at the top of the list are present in the greatest quantity. Ingredients listed at the end (for the most part) are present in the smallest quantities. The first five ingredients are typically the bulk of the formula and usually include glycerin (a great moisturizer).
Active vs. Inactive Ingredients
The FDA approves ‘active ingredients’ as substances that perform a specific function for a specific condition. Your acne treatment contains benzoyl peroxide, your skin lightening formula contains hydroquinone, and your sunscreen contains titanium dioxide. Those are listed as active ingredients.
Your label gets to be a bit tricky when active ingredients are listed. They’re listed separately at the top under the obvious heading: “Active Ingredients.” The inactive ingredients are listed separately under the just-as-obvious heading: “Inactive Ingredients.” Things may get confusing because in these cases the FDA allows the inactive ingredients to be listed in alphabetical order, instead of in descending order of predominance.
If you’re trying to avoid higher amounts of a certain ingredient, this caveat will make your job a little more difficult. The good news is that not many brands use this format.
What to Watch For
Many people are fooled by product name or description. The only way to really understand the products you’re using is to understand the labeling. Many skin care products appear beautiful, interesting, and appealing, but don’t let that lead you to believe it’ll work any better than its ingredients.
A large number of companies utilize a unique product name or fancy label to highlight ingredients that may only be present in tiny quantities. For many ingredients, those miniscule quantities aren’t enough to have the beneficial effect that you hope for.
Beware of Abbreviated Ingredient Lists
Be really careful when you’re doing your shopping online. Sometimes companies offer an abbreviated ingredient list in their product description. They may only list ‘key ingredients’ or ‘active ingredients,’ leaving the rest out. A very short ingredient list that contains only natural plant-based ingredients would probably be very appealing to you.
One popular cosmetic company lists the key ingredients for one of its products as: green tea, chamomile, and aloe extracts. No other ingredients are listed, leading you to believe there are none. With the soothing and calming appeal, they’re probably hoping you’ll be drawn in by the active ingredients and order the product. The reality is, there’s a good possibility that those three are included as less than 1% of the product. You’ll never know what the other ingredients are until your order arrives on your doorstep.
Allergens or irritants may be included; things you may especially have to watch out for if you suffer from sensitive skin.
Does a Key Ingredient Have to Be at the Top?
The descending quantity rule is generally true, but amount isn’t necessarily everything. An ingredient doesn’t have to be at the top of the list to change your skin.
Skin care expert and founder of the self-named skin care line, Sunday Riley explains, “certain active ingredients only need to be present at .5 to one percent in order to be the most effective, so a little goes a long way! And because so little of the active is needed, it goes at the end of the list.” Think of an acne cream. It may contain one of two very common ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. They are very potent active ingredients that serve to really make the product effective. Because they are so potent, you’re definitely not going to find them at the top of the ingredients list. Not only are large quantities unnecessary, they may actually cause more harm than good!
Collagen-boosting peptides are also effective at low levels, agrees cosmetic chemist Ginger King.
Having a little understanding of how to read an ingredient label when shopping for your skin care products can make all the difference in the world.