how to read a skincare ingredient list

Ever wondered 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 Read Skincare Ingredient Lists?

Skincare ingredient lists are super boring. But there are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to give them at least a quick look. Here’s why:

  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 and avoid a bad reaction.
  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?

You can find a product’s ingredients list 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. For example, table salt is listed as Sodium Chloride. Argan oil is argania spinosa kernel oil. Confusing much?

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.

“Typically only the top ‘active ingredients’ are required to disclose percentages,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian. “Because everything else on the ingredient label is simply listed in order of concentration, look for the ingredient you want to be closer to the beginning of the list, rather than near the end. This works the opposite way as well. If an ingredient that doesn’t mesh well with your skin is listed within the first three ingredients, opt for another product.”

WARNING! I’m seeing a lot of products lately that claim to contain 5% retinol or retinoids. If those claims were true, your skin will be severely irritated by the product. This is a case where brands fool you into believing you’re getting a higher dose for better results, when in reality, you’re getting a much, much smaller dose (1% or less). How is this legal? Simple. They contain a BLEND of retinol. For example, RetiSTAR™ is made up of retinol, tocopherol, sodium ascorbate, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, caprylic/capric triglycerides. If you see 5% RetiSTAR™, you’re NOT getting 5% retinol. 5% is the concentrations of all these ingredients combined. The actual amount of retinal is much less – and one your skin can tolerate.


  • 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 – usually about 80%. 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.

More isn’t always better. 15% Vitamin C will give you better results than 5% Vitamin C. But 20% retinol will severely hurt your skin! You won’t find more than 1% retinol in skincare products – cos you don’t need a higher dose to see results. It’s not how much of an ingredient is in a product, but whether there’s enough of that ingredient for it to work.

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.

If You Have Sensitive Skin And Are Prone To Bad Reactions

If you have rosacea, eczema, or sensitive skin that reacts badly to a lot of skincare products, here are a couple of tips that can help you further make sense of ingredient lists:

1. Look For Shorter Ingredient Lists

More ingredients doesn’t mean a better performance. Just like fewer ingredients doesn’t mean the product doesn’t work as well as something that has 30 ingredients. The number of ingredients tells you nothing about how good a product is. You can create a very effective moisturiser with only 5 ingredients or with 50. You can create a crappy serum with only 5 ingredients or with 50. BUT, if you have sensitive skin, the more ingredients a product has, the higher the chances one of them will cause an irritation. Opting for products with shorter ingredient list can help minimise the chance of a negative reaction – but you still need to make sure those few ingredients aren’t problematic.

2. Beware Of Free-From Claims

“Free-From” claims don’t help you avoid irritants. Quite the opposite, they’re very misleading. I’ll never understand why brands proudly proclaim they’re free from harmless ingredients like silicones and parables and then fill their products with irritating essential oils. I’ve written lots of articles about why chemical doesn’t equal bad and natural doesn’t equal good – and other bogus claims the beauty industry like to make. If you’re curious to know more, click here.

But, here’s what I want you to know: if you have sensitive skin, don’t trust Free-From claim. Just because an ingredient made that list, it doesn’t mean it’s bad for your skin. And what everyone swear is good may actually irritate your skin. I have lots of clients who are intolerant to natural ingredients, like essential oils, or even anti-aging superstars like niacinamide. If you have allergies, you’re much better off looking through an ingredient list to make sure the trigger isn’t there than relying on any claims the product makes.

Is It Worth Reading A Skincare Ingredient List After All?

Skincare ingredient lists have their limitations. Brands don’t always tell you how much of an ingredient is in the formula, or they trick you into believing there’s more of it than it actually is… And, of course, formulations matter too. Looking at a skincare ingredient list is not enough to know how well a product will work for you. BUT, it’s a great starting point. If you know a product contains an ingredient that’s problematic for you or doesn’t contain enough of an ingredient your skin needs, you can leave it on the shelves and invest your money in something that will actually work.