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The Ingredient Panel: Properly Reading Product Labels

Written by Ahmed Abdullah MD, FACS, FICS

Ingredient labels offer vital information about the skin care products used in treatments and recommended to clients. Beyond the label basics of product weight, directions, and skin types for which the product has been formulated, it goes without saying that the ingredients area is particularly important for its ability to point out active ingredients used in the formulation, potential allergens, and more. But despite a wealth of knowledge about how the skin functions and the ways in which skin care products impact skin health, many who work in the skin care industry can admit to having just a basic understanding of how to fully translate the ingredients area of the label.

 

Knowing how to properly read the ingredients panel of a skin care product label is a priceless tool, for it allows a professional to cut through corporate marketing messages to determine if a product is capable of generating the results it claims it will achieve. By going a step further and educating clients about how they can interpret product ingredient labels, professionals also help to create an empowered consumer who is more likely to find satisfaction from the skin care products they buy, and one who places increased value on the professional’s services and knowledge.

 

PRODUCT LABEL 101

 

First, the basics. Today’s product labeling requirements harken back to 1967, when Congress enacted the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). The FPLA directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to specify the type of information that must be included on the labels of all consumer commodities, including cosmetics and skin care products. Among the required information is: an identity statement indicating the nature and use of the product; the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor; the net quantity of contents in terms of weight, measure, or numerical count; a declaration of each product ingredient, listed by its common or usual name, in order of predominance; and any necessary warning or caution statements to ensure consumer safety.

 

It often surprises individuals to learn that the FDA does not require cosmetics and skin care products to list their shelf life or expiration date on the label. However, because manufacturers have a responsibility to offer products that are safe for consumer use, most companies include this information voluntarily.

 

THE INGREDIENTS SECTION

 

While the information contained on the front of the label is certainly important and beneficial, the “meat” of a skin care label lies on the back, in the ingredients section. Keep in mind, however, that interpreting the label requires a willingness to research the ingredients that are unfamiliar – an exercise that will bring to light not only objective facts about the ingredient, but often, extreme positive and negative viewpoints, as well. It is important to practice a bit of common sense when doing this research. If an ingredient sounds too good to be true and there is little science to back up the claims, it will rarely live up to its glowing status. On the flip side, while there are certainly ingredients one absolutely does not want to find in a skin care product, there are also ingredients that have unfairly been given a bad rap. Therefore, it is important to check the science behind an ingredient before jumping to conclusions. One recommended way of doing this is by conducting the search via Google Scholar, which limits results to those found in scholarly journals and books.

 

It is not uncommon for individuals who first begin paying attention to ingredient lists to find themselves confused by what they find there. This is because skin care and cosmetics ingredients must be listed according to their International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) name to ensure consistency across brands and products. This requirement often causes familiar ingredients to become unrecognizable to the average individual. For example, shea butter, a household name, is listed by its INCI name of butyrospermum parkii. Occasionally, manufacturers will list these familiar names in parentheses after the INCI name to make interpretation easier.

 

Because federal guidelines require that ingredients be listed in order of concentration, it is easy to find the product’s base ingredient: it is the first item listed. The base ingredient typically comprises up to 75 percent of a product formulation, with all remaining ingredients added in increasingly smaller quantities. Most skin care products use water as the base ingredient but occasionally a therapeutic base will be used, such as aloe vera, or even oils that are beneficial to the skin. Why does it matter? Because the primary ingredient is also typically the vehicle (or delivery system), which carries the active ingredients in the formulation deep into the skin to generate the intended results. For this reason, the base must be capable of penetrating skin tissue.

 

After the base, the ingredients listed vary depending on the type of product. Cleansers will likely have surfactants to help lift dirt and oil from the skin’s surface, while chemical exfoliators will have acids to dissolve or slough off dead skin cells. In the case of moisturizers, the ingredients that follow are typically a mix of: humectants, which draw moisture from the environment to the skin’s surface; occlusives, which minimize the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface; and emollients, which soften and repair skin texture. Regardless of the product, toward the top of the list of ingredients are chemicals and natural substances from a number of categories, such as: emulsifiers, which keep the formulation from separating; silicones, which make a product smoother and easier to spread; and solvents, which dissolve other ingredients.

 

The first five or six ingredients on the list generally comprise the majority of the product. Ingredients listed after this are limited in their ability to impact the skin, with one big exception: active ingredients. Many actives are highly effective in small concentrations. In fact, they are often more desirable in small doses because of the risk of irritation that accompanies them. For that reason, it is recommended to pay more attention to the ability of the active ingredient without worrying about how high it appears on the list.

 

Botanical extracts are often touted in product marketing as a key element of a product formulation. Just think of all the products that are named according to the botanicals they contain. And yet, more often than not, these botanicals appear near the bottom of the ingredient list, indicating their small concentration. The reality is that, in most cases, botanical ingredients are only able to benefit the skin if they are included in higher concentrations. When they are listed toward the bottom, they can only be expected to impart a pleasant fragrance or other aesthetic benefit.

 

Finally, at the bottom of the ingredient list, one can expect to find preservatives, which ensure product safety and provide it with a shelf life. Additionally, if the formulation includes fragrances or dyes, those should also appear at the bottom of the ingredient list.

 

A WORD OF CAUTION

 

Without a doubt, it is vital that aestheticians are able to decode a formulation’s ingredient list before recommending the product to a client. However, the ingredient label is only part of the equation. It reveals what is in the product, but not how much of each ingredient is included. In other words, it gives a one-dimensional measure of the product’s effectiveness.

 

After a product passes label criteria, it is important to test the product personally for an extended period of time. Doing so allows a professional to understand the client experience. Does the product feel good on the skin? Is the smell tolerable (keeping in mind that products with active ingredients often smell medicinal)? And, most importantly, does it work? A product that makes it through that final stage is one that a professional can certainly place confidence in, and one that he or she can be proud to suggest to clients.

 

abdullah2Dr. Ahmed Abdullah is a board-certified plastic/cosmetic surgeon and a recognized expert on the restorative and medicinal effects of aloe vera. In 1996, he applied his expertise in these areas to create Lexli, the premier line of aloe-based skin care. Dr. Abdullah is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, The International College of Surgeons, American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery and The American Society of Laser Medicine and Surgery. He earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois and completed his residency at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, where he trained under doctors Martin Robson and John Heggers, who pioneered much of the leading research related to aloe’s ability to encourage skin healing. lexli.com

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