how to figure out the concentration of active ingredients in skincare products

Truth bomb: just because a serum has vitamin C, it doesn’t mean it’ll help you keep wrinkles away.

(By the way, you can substitute vitamin C with any other ingredient).

It’s not just what’s in a serum that matters. How much of it is in the serum does, too. If you add 15% vitamin C to an anti-aging serum, you’ve got a winner. But if you add only 1%, it won’t do anything for wrinkles, my smart friend. Too little vitamin C is useless.

But how do you know if a serum has enough vitamin C (or whatever other goodie) to do the job?

Sometimes brands make it easy for you. They’re so proud of their concoctions, they declare the amount of goodies on the packaging.

Most of the time, they don’t. You have to become a detective and figure out the concentrations of active ingredients yourself.

The worst part? There are no exact rules to follow. Only loose guidelines to make the guessing game easier:

1. Order Of Ingredients

On the labels, ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration.

The ingredients that make up the bulk of the formula go first and those that are just sprinkled in go last. If you see vitamin C towards the end of the ingredient list, those alarm bells should start ringing!

By the way, the first ingredient is usually the vehicle, the one that delivers the active ingredients into the skin. It’s usually water.

Now, time for the exceptions.

Related: The Complete Guide To Vitamin C In Skincare: What It Is, What It Does, And Side Effects

Struggling to put together an anti-aging routine that fights wrinkles and gives you a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” below. It features product recommendations + right application order:

2. Active Ingredients May Be Listed Separately

Active ingredients are those that do the real job. In sunscreens, they’re the UV filters. In cleansers, they’re the cleansing agents. In anti-aging serums, they’re the antioxidants.

Sometimes, the active ingredients are listed separately, BEFORE all the other ingredients. I love it when brands do this because they usually list the concentration right next to the active. For ex: salicylic acid, 2%.

That’s when you realise that an ingredient doesn’t necessarily have to be used in a high dose to work. Usually, that’s what you want, a big dollop. But a few actives, like salicylic acid and retinol, work well even at low concentrations (<2%).

FIY: Most sunscreens list ingredients this way.

Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Acne-Free Skin

first aid beauty ultra repair hydrating serum

3. Ingredients Present In 1% Or Less Concentration May Be Listed In Any Order

Let’s be honest here. Most of the ingredients that make up your serum or cream are present at 1% or less. This matters.

Any ingredient used in concentration of 1% or less can be listed in any order. In other words, the label starts listing ingredients in descending order but once it hits the 1% mark, it just adds ingredients at random.

If they’re all present at (roughly) the same amount, the concentration criteria becomes useless.

If they’re all present at (roughly) the same amount, the concentration criteria becomes useless.

blithe gold apricot pressed serum

4. Filler Ingredients

How do you know where the descending order of ingredient stops being followed and the random one begins? Look what the Beauty Brains call “filler ingredients”.

Filler ingredients are there to trick your into thinking a product is more natural than it is. They’re usually a bunch of natural extracts sprinkled in so the brands can say “contains lavender/rosemary/tomato” on the packaging. These ingredients may very well work, but not in 1% or less concentrations!

(P.S. Most of the time, the ingredients the brands points out in their marketing copy are fillers).

Anything that comes after fillers, fragrances or preservatives is likely to be at 1% or lower concentration.

Related: Which Preservatives Are Both Effective AND Safe?

the inkey list retinol

5. The First Five

The first five ingredients make up the bulk of the formula. It’s these you should pay the most attention to.

The first ingredient (usually water) makes up between 75% and 95% of a product! The following four between 5% and 4%. After them, you’ll start to see fillers, preservatives, thickeners… everything else basically.

In a moisturizer, for example, the first ingredient is often water and the other four emollients and silicones.

If your moisturiser claims it contains jojoba oil to moisturise skin but you notice it didn’t make the top 5, that’s not what’s really gonna moisturise your skin. The synthetic emollients and silicones in the top 5 will.

Bottom line

Trying to figure out how much of an ingredient is in a skincare product is tricky! I hope these guidelines will make it easier for you to determine if that serum or cream you’re eyeing has what it takes to do the job.