Becoming a master decoder of ingredient labels is practically par for the course for beauty insiders and fans. What used to be a mysterious blend of latin-derived terms and a jumble of letters and numbers, is now made easier than ever to read—thanks to ingredient databases, consumer interest, and education from the brands themselves.
So sure, it’s easier, but that’s not to be confused with outright easy: Ingredient lists can still hide many truths about the product and it’s efficacy if you know how to read between the lines.
“I would really hope that we evolve as a sector to get to a point where the consumer doesn’t feel that they need to read the ingredient list to make sure that their product is safe,” says clean cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline in the most recent episode of Clean Beauty School. “But until then, I’m so impressed that consumers are asking the right questions.”
Want the ultimate insider knowledge to see if your product works and meets your standards? Here’s how she reads an ingredient list.
1. Look at your first three ingredients.
The order of the ingredients on the list matters—and, well, sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of the first three ingredients, it does. “I look at the first three ingredients to let me know what it’s composed of because the first three ingredients are basically what the product’s majority is—like if it’s butylene glycol, water, or aloe vera juice,” she says. “And that’s going to tell me a lot.”
For example, for if you see aloe high on the list of your lotion, you can bet that it will have a pretty effective hydrating base. No, it’s not a guarantee that it’s a perfect formula, but it’s a good start. On the other hand, seeing water and butylene glycol (a very common blend) high up on the list means the hydrator is likely more irritating to your skin barrier than moisturizing—as the petroleum-derived butylene glycol is a PEG and can be a skin irritant.
2. Many active ingredients should not top the list.
“There’s a misconception that active ingredients need to be high up on the list and that’s not true,” she tells us. See, many believe that unless they see those buzzy ingredients high up there, it must not be formulated to levels that get the job done. That’s simply untrue—and in several cases, when you see them at the top of that INCI list it means that it can inflame and sensitize delicate skin.
“Let’s take vitamin C—there are some vitamin C derivatives that should not be used past a certain threshold otherwise they are going to cause sensitization and rashes,” says Koestline. “Or retinol and alpha hydroxy acids are another example. I tell people not to use high amounts of these because they are very potent—or at least be careful while using those.”
But it’s not just sensitizing ingredients that you want to keep an eye out for. Take the very nourishing vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects and comforts the skin. “And then there’s also a very cool example of vitamin E: if you use more than a certain percentage of vitamin E it’s going to cause rancidity, but if you use less than that it’s gonna prevent rancidity.”
Ultimately, “you can see it’s not as easy as, OK, let me just read an ingredient list and if I don’t see that vitamin C is the second ingredient then it’s not a good product.”
3. Consider bioavailability, stability, and longevity.
People are eager for results. That’s understandable! But with potency in your topical formulas, often comes risks—not just for your skin’s health (a la irritation), but for the formula’s ability to deliver, stay shelf-stable, and remain tolerable for long periods of time. Because even if you have the most potent product available—what does it matter if it goes inactive stat?
Let’s go back to vitamin C, that favorite antioxidant. One of the most famous forms of the vitamin is L-ascorbic Acid. “That vitamin C is not stable over time, which is why we have so many different derivatives of vitamin C,” she goes onto explain that you can find water-soluble derivatives (such as aminopropyl ascorbyl phosphate, which are perfect for water-based formulas) as well as oil-soluble derivatives (such as tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, which are perfect for oil-based formulas). “And what these do is they increase the bioavailability and the penetration of vitamin C.”
Ultimately, Koestline recommends also just looking for more gentle, stable, and tolerable activities to reach your skin care goals: Consider hyaluronic acid, polyglutamic acid, and niacinamide. “There are lots of good ingredients, and I consider vitamin C to be one of them, but it’s not the only active out there: here’s also niacinamide, sodium hyaluronate, and polyglutamic acid,” she says. “These are absolutely beautiful ingredients that I think people should use more.”