How to read a skincare label like a pro

Updated: May 7, 2020

I remember training in one my first skincare brands, over six years ago now, and caught up in this moment of fascination and bewilderment as the trainer picked up the back of a skincare bottle and translated the meaning of almost every ingredient. I didn’t know it was possible to understand the foreign language that is a skincare label, which was always full of alcohols and sulphates and extracts and oils with Latin names I could not make sense of. 

I have always been interested to know what it all means, and now it is becoming more obvious that the world around me is too. Consumers are making more conscious choices. More people are picking up their bottles of shampoo and deodorants to search the label, whilst asking the same troubling question of “what’s inside?” If you happen to be one of them then look no further, because this blog post will tell you everything you need to know about understanding a skincare label like a professional.

What will you see on the back of your skincare products?

Alongside a long list of ingredients you probably have never even heard of, you will most commonly find a few other things on the back of your skincare bottles, tubes and cans. These include:

  1. Brand & Product name 

  2. Product details

  3. Weight & volume (net contents)

  4. Product purpose & definition

  5. Directions for use

  6. Storage information

  7. Manufacturers contact details 

how to understand the back of your skincare bottle

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Why should we care about labels?

Sustainability isn’t the only reason that we should care about what’s going into out products and how they are being made.

People that suffer with sensitive skin, irritation and dry chronic skincare conditions like eczema and contact dermatitis, benefit from investigating the products they are exposing their skin to.

By understanding skincare labels better, we are more in control of what we are using and therefore can encourage better quality of skin as we track what works for us and what doesn’t. 

Understanding the ingredients list

The INCI list, which stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, is a naming system for ingredients based on scientific nomenclature and is designed to make investigating ingredients more straightforward.

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How to know how much of an ingredient is in your product

The first thing you need to know is that the ingredients listed, in a concentration over 1%, appear in descending order from the biggest amount used, to the smallest amount. The first 5 ingredients tend to make up the bulk of the formula.

If there is less than a 1% concentration used, it does not have to appear in any particular order.

Getting to know potential allergens and fragrance

Potential allergens appear at the end of an ingredients list.  These ingredients sometimes with an Astérix (*) symbol marked next to them or the word/s will appear in italics.

Allergens refer to naturally derived essential oils or synthetic fragrance, ingredients that are known to potentially cause irritation to the skin. In Europe there is a definitive list of 26 of the most-common allergens which can be read here.  

how to find allergans in skincare

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Fragrance is found in many products and can also be found on the back of a skincare label as ‘parfum’ or ‘perfume.’ It is a controversial ingredient because it doesn’t refer to one single ingredient exactly, but multiple. This list of unknown ingredients is not made clear to us, because current legislation does not require manufacturers to state this information.

Nobody wants to use a product that smells bad, and it is no secret that perfume can sometimes make a product and keep us going back for more. The bottom line is fragrance is not technically needed in our products, and can cause significant skin irritation and damage to our health. 

If you are interested in ditching the perfume from your products, then choose skincare that is marketed specifically as fragrance-free, or a product that shows the full list of ingredients that makes up the fragrance.

Plant ingredients

Understanding listed ingredients derived from a plant is easier than you think. Plant-based ingredients are listed by their Latin name first, which always consists of two words. The plant’s common name that the ingredient is derived from is then usually followed in brackets, and then the last word usually describes the part of the plant it was used from. 

Below are some examples:

Simmondsia Chinesis (Jojoba) Seed oil Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) Fruit Extract Glycine Soja  (Soybean) Seed Extract

Chemical ingredients

Chemical-based ingredients sound scary and are often impossible to pronounce, but they are not all entirely bad for us. For example, alcohol in skincare is regularly seen as a ‘bad’ thing, however fatty alcohols like stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol and oleyl alcohol all possess nourishing emollient properties that can benefit many skin concerns.

This is why it is important to have some awareness about skincare ingredients and trends. You only have to be an Instagram user, or switch on the TV to hear the words like ‘retinol’ and ‘hyaluronic acid’ to have some clue to what to try next. These popular ingredients are popular for good reason. 

If you’re not too sure yet on the differences between niacinamide and alpha arbutin, there are a number of ways you can boost your knowledge in a short amount of time. 

You can learn one new ingredient a week by giving it a quick search on the internet, or through hashtags on social media – the #skinstagram community is very much alive and waiting for you right now.  

Pin and save helpful skincare ingredient posts on your favourite social media channels.

Start reading the back of a skincare bottle, each night as you are using it, to familiar yourself with the layout and wording on the ingredients list.

Use EWG’s Skindeep online database and Cosmeticsinfo.org to find a basic explanation of every skincare ingredient you can think of.  

Other things to look out for

Active ingredients

If an ingredient is of a higher concentration and has been FDA-approved to have a specific function to a certain skincare condition, then it will appear next to the ingredients list. It will also state the percentage of the ingredient used in the formulation.

benzoyl peroxide 5% gel

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Expiration date

Expiry dates on products are easy to spot via the open-jar symbol. This expiry starts the moment you open the product and will either state 6m, 12m or 24m etc. – ‘m’ standing for months. 

An expiration date is usually located on the bottom of the product, including the lot and batch number.

expiration date symbols

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Cruelty-free symbol

A bunny symbol will be located somewhere on the label if the product is cruelty-free.

products not tested on animals symbol

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Decoding the back of a skincare bottle may seem tricky at first, but after knowing what to look out for and with a little practice, makes the activity a fun and a beneficial one. Your skin will benefit from learning the skincare ingredients you are using, as you understand what your skin likes and doesn’t like. Download this cheat sheet to help you and start today. 

Download this cheat sheet for a helpful breakdown of handy ingredients to help brighten and hydrate your skin.

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#howtoreadaskincarelabel #skincareingredients #understandingskincarelabels #skincare #ingredientslists

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