How To Read An Ingredient List And Why It Matters

A skincare product’s ingredient list enables you to read between the marketing lines and gauge whether you can trust a brand.  It also helps you get the biggest bang for your buck. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the ingredient list be prominent, conspicuous, and easy to read and understand by ordinary people ([§ 701.3(d)], [§ 701.3(f)(2)]).  The ingredients have to be listed in descending order of predominance.  The exceptions to this rule are cosmetics that are also drugs (e.g., sunscreen and and anti-dandruff shampoo), ingredients present at a concentration not exceeding 1%, color additives, and ingredients accepted by the FDA as trade secrets.  For cosmetics that are also drugs, the active ingredient(s) must be declared before the cosmetic ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance.  Ingredients present at a concentration of 1% or less and color additives may be listed in any order after all the other ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance.  Ingredients that are accepted as trade secrets by the FDA can be declared at the end of the ingredient list under umbrella terms such as, “and other ingredients”, “fragrance”, or trademarked terms. 

Here’s how you can use the ingredient list to decide if you can trust a skincare brand or product, to determine and understand what you’re putting on your skin and in your body, and whether you’re getting the best value, results, and long-term health benefits.

First, identify the manufacturer’s marketing claims.  Then read the ingredient list to determine whether the product actually will do what the marketing team claims it will.  If you don’t know what a particular product’s ingredient is or does, look it up.  Use a variety of resources to verify your answer.  Don’t rely on the often recommended Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics database, it’s not a reliable source of information.  To get the best value for your money, do a cost/benefit analysis and risk assessment of the ingredients based on how they may affect you in the short and long term. 

As an example, Olay Super Serum is touted as the best all-in-one anti-aging serum for 2024.  It costs $34.99 for 1 oz. and claims to deliver 5 “luxury serum benefits” in 1 jar: “Better Skin Texture”, “More Even-Looking Skin Tone”, “Firmer Feeling Skin”, “Visibly Smoother Lines”, “Long Lasting Hydration”.  That sounds almost too good to be true.  How are these benefits achieved?  At what costs other than $34.99?  The answers lie in the ingredient list. 

Here’s where it gets tricky.  Brands will often only list key ingredients (highlighting the ones that can be mistaken for being natural or healthy, because, technically, they are nutrients), or list ingredients in alphabetical order or an order other than that of descending predominance (so that you cannot tell how the product is formulated), or pointedly misleadingly represent an ingredient with a picture of a whole food (so you think the ingredient is more natural than it actually is).  

The full ingredient list for Olay’s Super Serum contains 18 ingredients: water, glycerin, dimethicone, niacinamide, lactic acid, polyacrylate crosspolymer-6, palmitoyl pentapeptide-4, 3-O-ethyl ascorbic acid, sodium hyaluronate, tocopheryl acetate, panthenol, trehalose, PEG-11 methyl ether dimethicone, sodium lactate, mica, titanium dioxide, sodium benzoate, and fragrance.  For starters, that’s exhausting and, other than water, mica (fool’s gold) and “fragrance”, every ingredient is nearly unpronounceable and something most folks would have to look up.  You shouldn’t need a degree in chemistry to decipher the ingredients.

(Disclaimer: I do have degrees in Chemistry and in Nutritional Biology and I formulate and manufacture skincare solutions from whole foods specifically to provide an alternative to products concocted with ingredients like these.  As a reference, my only close corollary to the Super Serum contains goat’s milk, macadamia nut oil, honey, lactobacillus ferment, coconut oil, elderberry fruit extract, beeswax, aloe vera powder, and guar gum.  Again, you shouldn’t need a degree in chemistry to understand what you’re buying and assess its long-term costs.) 

Meanwhile, back at Olay…Water is the first ingredient, present in the largest quantity.  So, right off the bat, you know that what you’re getting for $34.99 is mostly water.  And, yes, water is a solvent that hydrates, and it does contribute, temporarily, to the “long lasting hydration” claim…At least there’s that.

Of the 17 other ingredients, 5 ingredients: dimethicone, polyacrylate crosspolymer-6, PEG-11 methyl ether dimethicone, mica, and titanium dioxide temporarily provide all 5 “luxury serum benefits”.  Dimethicone and other silicone-based ingredients, such as PEG-11 methyl ether dimethicone, are basically spackle for your skin, filling in its nooks and crannies so it feels silky smooth and velvety to the touch.  These ingredients create an illusion of healthier skin that immediately disappears when the product is wiped or washed off your skin, ensuring that you must keep using it to reap its “benefits”.  So, you pay $34.99 every month or so for the rest of your life and you won’t have improved your skin health.  Ironically, I suppose, if you’re lucky, your skin will be the same; probably, though, it’ll be worse.

Of the 12 ingredients left, Olay identifies 5 of them: niacinamide, vitamin C (3-O-ethyl ascorbic acid), alpha hydroxy acid (lactic acid), collagen peptide (palmitoyl pentapeptide-4), and vitamin E (tocopherol acetate) as key ingredients.  They are nutrients, of a sort, and even though they’re isolated and synthetic, they will change the structure and function of your body.  Problematically, because of the way the FDA regulates drugs and cosmetics, there are few long-term studies on the effects and safety of these bioactive ingredients, also known as cosmeceuticals.  Synthetic and isolated nutrients are metabolized differently than they are when found in whole foods, and they disrupt your metabolism, particularly when used long-term.  This is a hidden cost I’m unwilling to pay, so I steer clear of these ingredients, particularly peptides.  Read my April 10, 2023 article, “Anti-aging, Peptides, and Health”, for more. 

“Fragrance”, “flavor”, and trademarked/patented terms are intentionally created to describe complex mixtures and hide substances that can make you sick. “Fragrance” often includes endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates, and/or known allergens, all of which affect your health.  Again, it’s a cost I’m not willing to pay. 

Olay’s Super Serum contains sodium benzoate, a commonly used preservative.  By law and for your safety, every cosmetic that contains water also must contain a preservative to prevent microbial growth.  So, if you come across a cosmetic containing water that doesn’t also contain a preservative or purports to contain ”no preservatives”, that’s a huge, dangerous red flag.  Remember, anyone can put anything in a jar and legally sell it as skincare.  

It is possible that, as long as you keep buying it, this Super Serum might do some of what it claims, but, 11 of its 18 “Super” ingredients do have hidden and/or unknown costs.

Ignore the marketing and read and understand ingredient lists to decide whether the “benefits” of any product are greater than the unknown costs and risks to your health.

It’s your skin, save it. 

 A version of this blog post is published in my local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise.  You may have to create a free account to read the article

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