Reading Skin Care Product Labels – Never Be Fooled Again!

Have you ever cringed from reading the ingredient list in your skin care products? Many of us want to be aware of what we put on our face, but labels can be confusing. Even worse, many skin care companies try to trick you by making exaggerated claims because they think you don’t know any better! Not anymore…go grab a product, and read on to become your own cosmetic chemist.

Elements of a Skin Care Product

Let’s begin with an understanding of the types of ingredients that typically make up a skin care product. Binding agents are ingredients that help “hold” a product together…most products are made of water and oil (which we know don’t mix well). Glycerin, a common binding agent, helps keep the mixture from separating. Emollients lie on the surface of the skin to prevent water loss. They also fill in dehydration lines. Many emollients exist, but common ones include Aloe, Tocopherol, Urea and Shea Butter. Humectants draw moisture to the skin (usually from the air) in order to soften skin and decrease fine lines. Hyaluronic Acid, Propylene Glycol, Sodium PCA and Glycerine are common humectants. Solvents are designed to dissolve other ingredients, and typically include water, oil and/or alcohol. Preservatives assist in killing bacteria and preventing growth of microorganisms. Typically, anything ending in “paraben” is a preservative (ie: Methylparaben, Propylparaben, etc.). Products without preservatives tend to spoil quickly. Lubricants coat the skin and allow the product to glide on smoothly. Silicone, Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone are common lubricants. Surfactants are agents that help products to foam, and typically include Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Sodium Cocyl Isethionate. pH adjusters are often included in products to help maintain the correct pH for our skin. When a product has a high pH, our skin can feel tight, dry and itchy. Commonly used pH adjusters include Acetic Acid, Ascorbic Acid and Citric Acid.

Ingredients to Avoid

On to an equally important topic- what to avoid in your skin care products! Many companies use these ingredients because they are inexpensive, and they foolishly think you won’t know any better. Mineral Oil is very widely used, but it is known to be highly comedogenic (meaning it clogs pores and can cause breakouts). Oh, and did we mention it’s a byproduct of the petroleum industry?! Lanolin should also be avoided…it is actually sheep skin oil extracted from the wool. Many people have allergic reactions to lanolin- especially eczema sufferers. SD Alcohol can often be found in products for oily skin (and typically has a number listed after it). It strips oil from the skin, and in the process is stripping your protective layer. Oily skin may see an initial improvement, but the long term effect is a damaged barrier layer and an increase in oil. Fragrance is seen in many products…some people react fine to fragrance, by many people have reactions. A single fragrance is composed of thousands of elements, so chances are you may be allergic to at least one element. The bottom line is: it doesn’t benefit the skin, so why bother? We also stress the importance of avoiding Hydroquinone. Many skin lightening products use it, but it is a potential carcinogenic! It has been banned in Europe, and is under review in the US.

Fair Packaging and Labeling Act

The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act sets regulations in regards to the order in which ingredients are listed. It states that labels must list ingredients in order of highest to lowest concentration. “Cosmeceuticals” that make claims to correct a problem (which most skin care products do), must list the Active Ingredient before all others. For example, many acne products may begin with a listing of “Active Ingredient: 2% Salicylic Acid”. All others are listed as “other ingredients” or “inactive ingredients”, but don’t let this misleading labeling confuse you…those ingredients are still working on your skin (the title is just a formality)! Ingredients with multiple names are listed by Latin name, followed by the more recognizable English name. For example, “Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract”. Vitamins must be listed by their chemical name so that consumers aren’t tricked into thinking they are getting nutritional benefit from the topical application. So instead of reading Vitamin C, you may read Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate instead. We would also like to point out that ingredient percentages do not have to be listed on the label, but they can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of your product. For example, 2 brands may claim to contain Lactic Acid, but one may contain 1%, while the other 5%. And you better believe that the 5% will be more effective!

The Natural vs. Organic Debate

Another marketing trick people commonly fall for involves labels stating that products are “natural” or “organic”. There is much debate over these topics, mostly because there are currently no strict guidelines set by the FDA. Let’s clear up some confusion…companies can claim their products to be “natural” as long as they contain some ingredients derived from plants, minerals or algae (which most do). If you are choosing to use “natural” products because you want to avoid synthetic ingredients, be sure to read the label and see if the product contains preservatives or any long ingredients that you don’t recognize.

“Organic” implies that the ingredients are not modified, and there are no additives, chemicals, preservatives or artificial color/scent. You should know that there are 4 levels of organic certification, so many companies take advantage of the lax rules to trick you! If a label claims to be “made from organic ingredients”, that just means some of the product is organic (which, again, most products are). The only TRULY organic products will have a USDA seal.

So, should you go out and buy “natural” or “organic” products? It’s a personal decision, but we would like to point out that there are endless synthetic ingredients that do wonderful things for your skin! For example, Hyaluronic Acid is made in a lab, and it is excellent for hydrating and filling in fine lines. The list goes on and on. In our experience, non-organic products tend to provide much better results and have a much longer shelf life.

Marketing Hype

We can’t discuss product labels and not bring up the misleading claims we often see at the store and hear on television! There are plenty of trustworthy and results-driven lines out there, but don’t feed into the hype of products that promise to erase wrinkles or give you perfectly clear skin. A product can help to topically improve your skin, but there is a lot going on below the surface that a product can’t correct with just a few applications. “Anti-aging” is a term that is often thrown around, but we all know that aging is a part of life that we can’t avoid altogether. Another marketing ploy is claiming a product is “Dermatologist Recommended”. Sounds great, but that just means that some doctor, somewhere, said they would recommend the product!

The bottom line is this: there are honest companies, and there are companies that will make claims to reel you in. It is up to you to do your research…speak to professionals, ask your friends, and search online to obtain more detail on what different lines include in their products. This is the only skin we will ever have, and we owe it to ourselves to keep it healthy and beautiful!

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