What’s your recipe for understanding ingredient lists?

Written by by Catherine Atzen, M.B.A., CIDESCO, founder of ATZEN Superior to Organic® Skin Care

Ingredient lists displayed on retail products abide by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), which is an internationally-recognized system of identifying all ingredients in a product. Ingredients in concentration of 1 percent or higher are listed in descending order, followed by ingredients in concentration of less than 1 percent in any order. However, when it comes to judging the effectiveness of a product, there are more factors than just percentage to consider.

 

Numerous uninformed opinions on product ingredients can be found on the internet. This article will address four of them.

 

“Only the first five ingredients matter.”

 

The first few ingredients listed on a product label are typically solvents and emulsifiers that add texture to the product, with some active ingredients following.

 

Ingredient suppliers recommend percentage ranges for actives to use in formulations. Brands focusing on results are likely to formulate at the high end of the range, whereas brands competing on price may use percentages below the recommended range as a marketing claim. This being said, effectiveness per percentage used depends on the ingredients. While some ingredients can be used in high percentages, such as some plants, others are effective in small percentages. This is true of actives such as retinol, for which 0.05 percent is high. This is easier to understand when looking at the percentage of a prescription cream bought at a pharmacy: the active ingredients may be 0.01 percent or 0.05 percent. This is enough to be effective and more could harm.

 

“If the ingredient name is not simple, it must be harmful.”

 

This is not always the case. Most ingredients, such as solvents, emulsifiers, or surfactants, have chemical-sounding names because they are called by their scientific names. For example, cetearyl alcohol sounds like a chemical, but it is an ingredient extracted from coconut. Ingredients like this are necessary to make lotions, creams, serums, scrubs, masks, or gels and, when well-chosen, are healthy for the skin. Products cannot be made solely with actives.

 

“Good products must have hyaluronic acid, peptides, or DNA.”

 

Two products can have the same ingredients and INCI, and one is effective and the other not, because the INCI gives no indication of the quality of an ingredient. Hyaluronic acid, for instance, could be of high quality and high molecular weight and cost 50 times more than a low quality hyaluronic acid of low molecular weight. High quality ingredients deliver results, but a high percentage of a poor quality ingredient will not make a good product.

 

“The fewer ingredients, the better.”

 

Think of the variety of foods and nutrients a person must eat for a healthy body, like vitamins, minerals, trace elements, antioxidants, and so forth. The same is necessary for the skin. Skin can suffer many issues, such as dehydration, free radicals, redness, acne, aging, or pigmentation. Many ingredients may be required to correct such problems. Effective products have many ingredients that work in synergy. For example, to replace a synthetic color additive, such as blue No. 5 in a toner, it takes 30 flower extracts to make a natural alternative that also delivers skin benefits. This makes for a long INCI.

 

When it comes to understanding INCI and product labels, manufacturing methods, quality of formulation, percentages, and quality of ingredients must all be considered. Also, remember that some manufacturers disclose the sources of their ingredients, but not all do. The key to choosing quality products with trusted ingredients is doing research and staying informed. The effort is well worth it, as better ingredients equals better results.

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