How to read a skincare ingredient label

Learning how to read a skincare ingredient label can be a huge help when deciding which product is right for you.

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Kate Iselin
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It can be tricky enough to decide what kind of skincare treatments you need to use on your face, let alone which brand you want to buy from, or which specific product you want to purchase.

(Yes, we know we need a cleanser, but which of the 50 on the shelf should we get?) Learning how to read a skincare ingredient label can be a huge help when deciding which product is right for you.

Although there’s a lot of information to decipher, understanding exactly which ingredients you’re getting in your new product will help you make better purchasing decisions—and can eliminate that terrible feeling of investing in a new product only to realise that it doesn’t have any effect on your skin.

It might seem obvious, but...

Check the front label of the product to find out exactly what kind of product you’re buying. Treatments labelled ‘moisturiser’ or ‘toner’ explain what role they play in your skincare regime, but not every product has such a simple name.

There are plenty of products out there with vague, confusing names that sound impressive but don’t explain their true purpose. “Hyperglow Shine Serum” and “Overnight Calming Masque” might sound fancy, but what do these products actually do?

We’re not saying that every product with a long and confusing name should be avoided, but it’s worth doing a little research about what effect these treatments are meant to have on your skin.

Consult the brand’s website and look for reviews on social media to find out what the treatment is supposed to do, and if it actually works. You can also go right to the source and find out for yourself whether the product will be effective, based on what it contains.

The ingredient list

We know, trying to understand the ingredients list on the back of your skincare can make you feel like you need a degree in advanced chemistry. But it’s worth learning about a few key ingredients so you can make better, more informed choices about what you’re putting on your face.

There are thousands of ingredients that can be used in skincare, so we can’t list every one—but here are a few common ones that you’re likely to see, along with a short description of what they do.

Some really popular ingredients go by their scientific name when listed, so keep an eye out!

Ascorbic acid

A form of vitamin C, which can repair photoaged skin and increase collagen production1. Vitamin C can appear in several different forms, like l-ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate [2].

Alcohol

In large quantities alcohol can have a drying effect on the skin, but alcohol is generally only used in very small quantities in skincare. Some people like to avoid alcohols of any kind, while others don’t mind so much. We’ll let you make up your mind, but we will say that fatty alcohols like cetyl, cetearyl, and stearyl alcohol have a more moisturising effect on the skin, while denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol can be drying.

Aqua

This is one you’ll see a lot in skincare, and it just means water. Aqua is used to create an emulsion—a combination of oil and water that doesn’t separate—in skincare products.

Benzoyl peroxide

A strong and effective anti-acne ingredient that kills bacteria, but can be drying on the skin [3].

Beta hydroxy acid

Otherwise known as salicylic acid gentle ingredient often used to treat acne alongside benzoyl peroxide.

Niacinamide

A form of vitamin B3, niacinamide can reduce inflammation, combat acne, and lessen skin pigmentation [5].

Parabens

Parabens are a preservative. They’re a controversial ingredient because some studies have shown that they have endocrine disruption effects in animals, although their effects on humans have not been studied conclusively.

Parabens have been approved for use in Australia, but if you’d like to avoid them look out for any ingredient ending in -paraben (like methylparaben and butylparaben).

Retinol

An effective, strong ingredient that can reduce acne and lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol can also be called retinaldehyde in ingredient lists [7].

SLS

Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate is one of the ingredients in soaps, shampoos, and cleansers that strips oil and grease from the skin. Some people avoid it because it can irritate the skin, while others believe it can cause health problems.

There is no evidence that it can cause health problems, but it has been proven to irritate sensitive skin [8].

Titanium dioxide

A UV filter frequently used in sunscreen. Some concerns have been raised about the size of titanium dioxide particles (‘nanoparticles’) and their ability to penetrate the skin. Studies have shown it is not possible for titanium dioxide nanoparticles to penetrate the skin, and as such it poses no risk when used in sunscreen [9][10].

Tocopherol

A form of Vitamin E, which can have antioxidant effects [11].

Zinc oxide

Another UV filter used in sunscreen. Similar to titanium dioxide, concerns have been raised about its ability to penetrate the skin, but studies have shown this is not possible. Zinc oxide poses no risk when used in sunscreen [9][10].

In Australia, ingredients are listed in descending order by volume [12]. This means that the ingredient that has the highest concentration in the product will be at the start of the list, and so on until the ingredient that has the lowest concentration is at the end.

If you’ve just gone to check your latest skincare purchase only to see that the ingredient you bought it for—say, retinol—is near the bottom of the list, don’t stress.

Many ingredients can still be effective at smaller concentrations, and some may even be far too strong for the skin at higher concentrations!

Expiration dates

Lastly, it’s important to remember that just like food, skincare can expire. Expired skincare can lose its colour and smell, and can begin to feel different from when you first bought it (a soft, smooth cream might go lumpy or watery over time, for example).

Some products may also pose a risk if you continue using them when they’re expired—sunscreen, for example, won’t provide proper protection if it is past its expiry date [13].

On most products, there will be a little graphic of a cream pot with a number inside of it. That number is the amount of months a product can be used for after opening, before it expires [14].

Make sure you take note of when you bought a product so you don’t accidentally continue using it after it expires.


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References

  1. Fitzpatrick, Richard E. and Rostan, Elizabeth F. 2002, ‘Double-blind, half-face study comparing topical vitamin C and vehicle for rejuvenation of photodamage’, Dermatologic Surgery, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 231—236. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11896774/>, accessed 1st August 2020.
  2. Telang, Pumori Saokar 2013, ‘Vitamin C in dermatology’, Indian Dermatology Online Journal, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 143—146. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673383/>, accessed 1st August 2020.
  3. DermNet NZ, ‘Benzoyl peroxide’, <https://dermnetnz.org/topics/benzoyl-peroxide/>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  4. Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists, ‘The use and safety of hydroxy acids in cosmetics’, <https://ascc.com.au/the-use-and-safety-of-hydroxy-acids-in-cosmetics/>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  5. DermNet NZ, ‘Niacinamide’, <https://dermnetnz.org/topics/nicotinamide/>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  6. Choice, ‘Chemicals in cosmetics’, <https://www.choice.com.au/health-and-body/beauty-and-personal-care/skin-care-and-cosmetics/articles/chemicals-in-cosmetics>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  7. DermNet NZ, ‘Topical retinoids’, <https://dermnetnz.org/topics/topical-retinoids/>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  8. Mohammed, Yousuf 2019, ‘What is sodium lauryl sulfate and is it safe to use?’, The Conversation. <https://theconversation.com/what-is-sodium-lauryl-sulfate-and-is-it-safe-to-use-125129>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  9. Cancer Council Australia, ‘Nanoparticles’, <https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/causes-and-prevention/sun-safety/about-sunscreen/nanoparticles-and-sunscreen>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  10. Australian Government Department of Health, Therapeutic Goods Administration 2017, ‘Literature review on the safety of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens’, <https://www.tga.gov.au/literature-review-safety-titanium-dioxide-and-zinc-oxide-nanoparticles-sunscreens>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  11. Keen, Mohammad Abid and Hassan, Iffat 2016, ‘Vitamin E in dermatology’, Indian Dermatology Online Journal, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 311—315. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4976416/>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
  12. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, ‘Cosmetics ingredients labelling’, <https://www.productsafety.gov.au/product-safety-laws/safety-standards-bans/mandatory-standards/cosmetics-ingredients-labelling>, accessed 1st August 2020.
  13. Cancer Council, ‘About SPF50+ sunscreen’, <https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/causes-and-prevention/sun-safety/about-sunscreen/spf50-sunscreen>, accessed 2nd August 2020.
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