How To Read Skin Care Labels

How To Read Skin Care Labels

Cleaning up your beauty routine is challenging enough without having to decode ingredient labels. But the only way to truly understand what you’re getting in a product and how safe it is is to go straight to the ingredients. Many companies use a product name or description to feature ingredients that are actually only present in tiny amounts or use words like “natural” or “organic” to imply that the product is entirely made of natural or organic ingredients. This is often not the case. Look past the buzzwords and pretty packaging and join us in decoding the label.

The Ingredients

The ingredient list is also known as the INCI list or “International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients” and is based on scientific terminology. Plant-based ingredients are easy to spot because they are listed with their latin names (always two words representing Genus species) and a common name in brackets. For example, Helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil. A common misconception is that if you can’t pronounce an ingredient name, it’s bad for you but there are plenty of naturally derived ingredients with complicated names that are totally safe to use.

Here are some you may come across:

  • Tocopherol or vitamin E protects the product from going bad.
  • Xanthan gum is a naturally derived gum that thickens the product.
  • Cetyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that stabilizes emulsions and has a moisturizing effect. It’s drying like pure alcohol (ethanol).
  • Citric acid regulates the pH levels of the product and protects it from microbial contamination.
  • Sorbitan olivate is an emulsifier made from sorbitol (a sugar alcohol commonly found in chewing gums and typically made from corn-derived glucose) and olive oil.
  • Potassium sorbate is a preservative from the potassium salt of natural sorbic acid – also used to preserve foods.

However, there are some ingredients that you absolutely want to steer clear of. These include phthalates, sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde, coal-tar dyes, ethanolamines, synthetic fragrance/parfum, petrolatum, BHA, BHT, and oxybenzone. You can find a full breakdown of toxic ingredients to avoid here.

Sometimes online brands list shortened versions of their ingredient lists, only sharing key or active ingredients. An active ingredient is one that has been shown to have an effect that is documented by science and approved by the FDA.  For the full list, you have to check the label on the product itself where the company is required to list everything.

Active ingredients include things like sunscreen agents, skin-lightening ingredients, and anti-acne ingredients. Whether or not an ingredient is listed as “active” depends on the specific claims being made by the product and what the FDA permits for that ingredient. If an exfoliant contains salicylic acid but doesn’t make an anti-acne claim, it doesn’t have to list salicylic acid as an active ingredient. Inactive ingredients are not regulated in the same manner as active ingredients: the FDA does not require inactive ingredients to be proven safe prior to use. The main requirement is that they are listed in descending order of concentration. If an ingredient is present at a concentration of less than 1%, it can be listed in any order.

Common Claims

There are a few misleading phrases companies will often use on their labels. These are a few to watch out for.

Clinically Proven: this means is that the product went through some kind of clinical test but it doesn’t matter what kind, how many people, the amount of the product used or whether or not the product contains harmful ingredients. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the product has gone through rigorous clinical trials like prescription drugs are mandated to be. If a product claims to be clinically proven, it’s worth examining the details of the study to see what you can actually expect.

Dermatologist Tested: this usually means that a dermatologist has done a patch test to see if the product irritated skin. This doesn’t include testing to see if the product actually reduces wrinkles, makes skin healthier or any other results. It also does not mean dermatologist-recommended.

Contains 99.9% ______: This claim can imply that the product contains that exact percentage of a hero ingredient. What it’s really saying is some very pure ingredient is present. For example, one drop of a 99.9% aloe vera solution added to a gel can be listed as ‘contains 99.9% aloe vera’.

Fragrance-Free: This can mean that no artificial fragrance was added, which is good. But some manufacturers still add chemicals to mask a product’s natural odor which also qualifies as “fragrance-free”. Make sure to check the label for artificial or synthetic fragrances – a single “fragrance” ingredient can actually mask hundreds of unlisted ingredients.

The Symbols

There are also a host of symbols you can find on products as well – ranging from organic certifications to cruelty-free. Here’s what they mean.


At Poéthique, we strive for transparency in every aspect of our business. That’s why we proudly feature a full rundown of our ingredients and process right here.

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