So often we buy cosmetics based on an ad, online mention, or perhaps the recommendation of a friend or trusted ‘expert.’ There is relatively little consideration of what’s actually in the jar until we’ve had a chance to try the product.  A quick look at the list of ingredients can seem confusing and almost like reading another language.

Here are a few basic tips to help you decode the “back side” of a cosmetic label.  Remember: A more informed consumer makes smarter choices.

  1. Hierarchy of Ingredients:  In the U.S., the content and appearance of the ingredient list is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ingredients above 1% are listed in order of abundance from high to low. Ingredients below 1% can be in any order, and colorants are placed at the end of the list. Added scent, even if it is comprised of several ingredients, can be listed as “fragrance.” Many of the ingredients in the last half of the list will be in low concentrations – probably 1% or less. A reasonable guide is that the first third of the ingredients make up over 80% of the product, and the last third make up about 1-5% of the product. You may be surprised that water is usually the first or second ingredient!  Testers, samples and hotel toiletries are not required to display an ingredient list.
  1. Technical Names for Common Ingredients: It is a strange language– called “INCI!” In the U.S., ingredients are listed by the name specified by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) dictionary. This allows manufacturers to use a standardized naming system for ingredients in all personal care products–except true soaps that make no cosmetic claims. INCI names are often chemical descriptors and may be unfamiliar to consumers, as seen with the examples below. Names for botanical extracts use the taxonomical Latin plant names, but sometimes include a more common name in parentheses.

3.  Ingredients Used in Other Forms: Now that you are more familiar with INCI-ese, there is an additional complication related to the various forms for a single ingredient. For example, we saw that vitamin E appears as its INCI name “tocopherol,” but you may see ingredient lists with some of its other forms:  tocopheryl acetate, tocopheryl linoleate, or tocopheryl succinate. Tocopherol in all these certain forms is widely used as an anti-oxidant, but these other forms may have additional benefits for formulation purposes. As an example, vitamin E is very insoluble in water (often the main ingredient in cosmetics), and the use of other forms with increased water solubility provides a superior product with improved aesthetics.

4.  Finding the Right Harmony: Why are there so many ingredients? Because a handful of ingredients can’t get the job done! In addition to ingredients that have benefits for skin, a cosmetic needs to have:

  •  Appropriate consistency (neither too thick or too thin)
  • Pleasant odor
  • Desirable feel
  •  Qualities that last several hours after application

In addition, cosmetics must:

  • Have a pH that is suitable for skin exposure
  • Remain chemically stable under typical consumer storage conditions
  • Be free from microbial contamination for the shelf life of the product

Many ingredients working together are needed to address all of these requirements and provide the best product possible.

5.  FDA Standards:  Some cosmetics are regulated as over the counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and must display an active ingredient list, including percentage, delineated by a ‘drug fact panel.’ Other ingredients appear in the ‘Inactive Ingredients’ section. Sun protection products—see the illustrative label below– and skin bleaching and acne treatments are some examples of over the counter drugs.

6.  Be Aware of Buzz Words:  Manufacturers increasingly use words such as “natural,” “organic,” “fragrance-free,” “unscented,” “preservative-free,” “oil-free,” or “hypo-allergenic.” But these have no formal legal definitions for cosmetics derived from chemicals and, therefore, have little meaning and may be misleading. There is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified definition of “organic” for preparations that contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Products under this classification may display the USDA organic seal on the label.

Take some time to review the complete label on a cosmetic to be aware of what you are purchasing. These tips will help you to decipher the ‘language’ of cosmetic ingredients and marketing phrases. By carefully reviewing labels, common ingredients will become familiar and you can evaluate the seemingly endless cosmetic options with more confidence.

Additional information:

To learn more about the ingredients in the MEG 21 with Supplamine® suite of anti-aging products, click here.

MEG 21 skincare products with Supplamine® work at multiple levels to prevent the formation of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs), a leading cause of oxidative stress and the visible effects of aging in skin. With MEG 21, put your best face—and self–forward.