how to read a skincare ingredient list

The law is clear: beauty products must declare their ingredients on the packaging.

It’s to keep you safe. If you know something’s in there’s bad for you, you won’t buy it. Crisis averted. Except…

How the heck are you supposed to make sense of that incomprehensible long list of chemicals? It’s not like anyone ever bothered to explain to you what butylene glycol or DMDM hydantoin are and if they should or shouldn’t be there. And why are they making shea butter sound like sperm? Can’ they just say “shea butter” instead of “Butyrospermum Parkii”? Guess that would be too easy.

If you can’t make sense of it, you won’t pay any attention to it. You’ll ignore the list and shell out the bucks for a cream that gives you a bad rash. Damn it! Why is life never easy?

While we’re all waiting for regulators to realise we’re not all cosmetic scientists or politicians to give us a better education (wouldn’t it be fun to learn cosmetic science in school?), here are a few tips and tricks to help you make sense of those hieroglyphics called ingredient lists:

Why should you bother reading skincare ingredient lists?

A few reasons:

  1. Sensitivities and allergies: if you’re allergic or sensitive to an ingredient, a close look at the ingredient list will make sure you leave anything that contains the culprits on the shelves.
  2. Personal choice: some of you may dislike the feel of silicones or the harshness of surfactants, for example. If you can read the ingredient list, you can opt for alternatives that better suit your tastes, needs and values.
  3. Effectiveness: does a serum really contains enough vitamin C to boost collagen or is there just a drop in it for marketing purposes? The ingredient list will tell you.
  4. Dupes: if you can figure out what ingredients make a product work they way it does, you can look for cheaper alternatives (or you can check out my dupes list, instead).

Where Do You Find The Ingredient List Of Skincare Products?

This pesky thing can hide in a few places:

  1. Back of the packaging (most common)
  2. On the box
  3. In the leaflet
  4. Underneath the product label or barcode (follow the arrow – it will point you directly to it)

How To Read A Skincare Ingredient List

Now that you know where to find the ingredient list, let’s figure out how to read it. Here are a few rules to keep in mind:

1. Names of ingredients

Ever wondered why those names are so complicated? It’s because they follow the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) system (because if every country had its own system, it’d be even more confusing!)

According to the INCI system, ingredients must be named using their scientific and, for plants, Latin names. Typical, isn’t it?

P.S. The English names are often put in parenthesis to allow you to decipher them a little more easily.

2. Order of ingredients

As a rule, you need a generous dollop of an ingredient for it to work its magic. If you put only a drop of two, they won’t do much for you (retinol is a notable exception).

But how can you tell if the brand has skimped on your precious vitamin C or green tea? Pay attention to the order of ingredients

The Federal Trade Commission dictates that ingredients have to be listed in order of concentration, from the highest to the lowest.


  • Ingredients that are present at a concentration below 1% can be listed in any order.
  • Colour additives, no matter what their concentrations are, can be listed in any order, after all the other non-color additive ingredients (usually, you find these at the very bottom).
  • In the case of drugs (like sunscreens), the active ingredients must be listed before the other ingredients.

Related: What’s The Difference Between A Cosmetic And A Drug?

3. Spotting Low concentrations

You now know that anything that is present at concentrations of 1% or less can be listed in any order. But, how do you know where the concentrations start to be this low?

There isn’t a precise rule, but there are several guidelines:

  • The rule of 5: usually, it’s the first 5 ingredients that make up the bulk of the formula. From 6th onwards, concentrations start to be low.
  • Preservatives: these are used in 1% of less, so anything that comes after them will be present in trace amounts, too.
  • Fragrance: ditto. Anything that comes after perfume is at 1% at the most.
  • Natural fluff: if you see a list of chemicals at the top followed by a bunch of natural extracts, you know the latter is there just for show. All that natural goodness won’t do too much for you.

Related: The Battle Of Preservatives: Which Is The Best Alternative To Parabens?

4. “And other ingredients”

Have you ever noticed that some labels use the phrase “and other ingredients”? It means that certain ingredients are considered “trade secrets” and don’t need to be revealed on the ingredient list.

Perfume is the perfect example. Any fragrance is made up of 100 ingredients or more. Most of them are harmless, but some are known allergens. Yet, if everyone knew what’s in Chanel n.5, for example, it’d be only a matter of time before someone copied it. Secrecy’s needed to protect the formula.


If a perfume contains known allergens (and almost all of them do), these must be disclosed on the packaging. Usually, they’re at the end. You’ve probably seen them often. Examples include limonene and linalool.

I hope this post has helped you decipher those confusing skincare ingredient lists. Do you ever pay attention to them when you shop for something new? Let me know in the comments below.