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Looking for Clean, Effective Skincare? Here’s Your How-To Guide for Reading Product Labels

Posted by Sarah Otto on
Looking for Clean, Effective Skincare? Here’s Your How-To Guide for Reading Product Labels

Beauty product labels are nothing short of confusing—I mean, what the heck is Niacinamide anyway?


When it comes to food, the ingredients list can be pretty straightforward. Look for basic ingredients you can *actually* pronounce, and you’re in good shape. But skincare ingredients? That’s a different story. Those hard-to-say words are often super beneficial to your overall skin health! Skip out on those, and we’re in big trouble.


But how can we know what each ingredient is, what it does, and if it's good for our skin?


If you’re anything like me, you spend much of your hard-earned money on quality skincare, so education is key if you want to make sure you’re (literally!) not flushing cash right down the drain.


That’s why I put together a complete guide to reading those tricky skincare labels, so you know exactly what you should be looking for when you pick up a product—the science, the ingredients, and necessary things to keep in mind before purchasing. Ready? Let’s do this!

1. Active Ingredients

Products containing high percentages of active ingredients tend to be more potent and, well, just work better. Keep in mind that skincare ingredients are listed from highest to lowest percentages, so make sure active ingredients are higher up on the list.


Also, avoid overusing potent actives in multiple products. You should never ever layer the same active ingredients on your skin when one product already has it covered. Make sure that the products you are using—whether cleanser, toner or serums—have a balanced assortment of active ingredients that complement each other. Overuse of potent active ingredients can lead to irritation and sensitized skin.


It’s also very important to use active ingredients at the right time of day. Your skin will benefit from Vitamin C, Peptides and Hyaluronic Acid during the daytime. Simply put, Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that helps fight pollution and boost the effectiveness of your sunscreen, while Hyaluronic Acid hydrates and Peptides plump. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (aka, AHAs) and Retinol are best used at night because they can increase sun sensitivity. I also recommend using Niacinamide (yep, there’s that word again) at night because of its powerful multitasking benefits. It works best if left on your skin for longer periods of time, unaltered by makeup, sweat, sunscreen and other daytime distractions. When combined with AHAs, Niacinamide penetrates better and works harder to get to the deeper levels of your skin.

2. Plant-Based Ingredients

These ingredients offer great benefits for your skin. Not to mention, they’re directly derived from plants (score!). Since these ingredients are more likely to come from nature, they’re less processed. Bonus: They also complement active ingredients and help boost the effectiveness of some of our favorite powerhouse actives (think: Vitamin C, Niacinamide and Hyaluronic Acid).


The main caution with plant-based ingredients? Don’t overuse them. That’s because they tend to be irritating and potentially allergenic. That being said, it’s best to use less than five plant-based extracts in a product and limit the use of flowering extracts, as these can be the most highly allergenic.


Just like your active ingredients, be aware of the types of plant-based extracts you’re using in your products. You want to avoid overusing them in multiple products and layering them on your skin unintentionally.


The main group of plant-based extracts to use caution with are those in the Compositae or Asteraceae family (like ragweed, for example). Some of the most common ones include: burdock, arnica, chamomile, dandelion, daisy, edelweiss, goldenrod, marigold, sunflower, blue tansy and yarrow. Also, it probably goes without saying, but avoid any plant-based ingredients you have food allergies to. For example, if you’re allergic to tomatoes, avoid applying anything with tomato extract to your skin. Easy to remember, right?

3. Preservatives

This one’s a non-negotiable. If a product contains water, it absolutely *needs* a preservative. Even oils and powder-based products need a preservative if they have the possibility of having water mixed into the product. Preservative-free should never be a selling point, especially for those products claiming to be “all natural.” Products need preservatives to be considered safe—otherwise, you run the risk of rubbing bacteria, mold or yeast all over your skin, and that is definitely not healthy.


However, there are a few preservatives you should avoid. Potentially, some may be hormone disruptors, toxic or a major allergen risk. These include parabens, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea, Quaternium-15), Ethanolamines (DEA, TEA, MEA/ETA), EDTA and Methoxyethanol/Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI/MI).

4. Allergenic Ingredients

Skin allergies often lead to irritation and sensitized skin. The main cause of skin allergies? If you guessed commonly used active ingredients like Vitamin C, Niacinamide, or Hyaluronic Acid—you’re incorrect! The main cause of skin allergies is typically from fragrance, plant extracts, preservatives and lathering agents.


Both synthetic and natural fragrance have the potential to cause significant allergies (yep, even essential oils). If you’re going to use a product that contains fragrance, it should be listed as individual ingredients and not just “fragrance,” so you always know exactly what you’re using.


Oh, and FYI, essential oils such as lavender and cinnamon are some of the most common causes of skin allergies. Plant-extracts, especially flower extracts, should be avoided if you have sensitive skin and limited to less than five in each individual product. Fruit extracts tend to be less allergenic unless you have a food allergy to a specific fruit. As stated above, preservatives can also be allergenic. Some of the most highly allergenic preservatives are formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. And finally, lathering agents can also be very allergenic and irritating to the skin. A potentially allergenic lathering agent is cocamidopropyl betaine, which is commonly found in soap, shampoo and facial cleansers.


One common myth with skin is that starting a new product is the only way to develop an allergy. The truth is you typically need to be exposed to an allergen before an allergy occurs. This means that a product you’ve been using for years can certainly start giving you allergic reactions. This is why you don’t want to overexpose your skin to too much fragrance, plant-extracts, preservatives or lathering agents—although harmless now, an allergy to one of these could develop over time.

Quick Tips: Things to Avoid When Reading Skincare Labels

1. Long Lists of Ingredients

If a product contains a long list of ingredients, chances are you’re not benefiting from many of the active ingredients. It’s too crowded with emulsifiers, fillers and plant extracts! A simplistic, straightforward ingredient list containing the active ingredients you *actually* need, such as Niacinamide, Vitamin C, AHAs, Retinol and Antioxidants are going to work harder and simply do more for your skin.


Don’t get fooled into thinking that multiple plant extracts are “good.” Most often it’s just a trend or false selling point. The truth is that these “natural” plant extracts can be some of the most highly allergic ingredients you put on your skin (eek!).


Instead, look for complementing plant extracts that boost the effectiveness of the actives in the serum—just make sure they’re limited to less than five. Some of the best include bearberry, licorice root, gotu kola, kakadu plum, watermelon extract and green tea, berry and fruit extracts.

2. Any Time of Day Products

Serums that are designed to be applied in the morning and at night are wonderful because they consider what your skin needs at any given point in the day—think: pollution-fighting antioxidants, skin-plumping peptides and collagen-building Vitamin C. Serums containing AHAs or retinol are best to use at night because these can cause sun sensitivity. Also, using more reparative ingredients at night helps them work better, because they can remain on the skin for a longer period of time without sun, sweat and makeup disrupting them. Be sure to look for a night serum containing exfoliating fruit acids, gluconolactone or lactic acid, niacinamide or retinol.

3. Over-Applying Too Many Products / Overusing Active Ingredients

It’s *essential* that you study your skincare ingredient lists, especially if you plan to layer on multiple products. Reason being, you want to ensure you’re not applying the same active ingredients, plant extracts and even preservative systems—you’d be surprised by how many repeated ingredients you’re using on your skin! Overuse of certain actives can quickly add up, and applying higher-than-normal percentages of active ingredients can lead to irritation, skin barrier damage, risk for sensitized skin or a potential allergic reaction.


Instead, keep it simple: apply only one potent serum in the morning and one at night. Also, be sure to choose serums that are a good mix of actives, and look for ones that only target your skin’s concerns. Oh, and skip cleansers and moisturizers that contain multiple active ingredients, because let’s face it, that’s just unnecessary.


4. Avoid Brands with a “Signature or Proprietary Blend” in Every Product They Create

If a product line contains a “signature blend” of ingredients that’s found in every single product they sell—skip it. This is so-not healthy for your skin to be exposed to the same cocktail of actives, probiotics or plant-based extracts multiple times a day in every product you use (like your cleanser, serums or moisturizers). It can lead to sensitized skin, allergy and irritation. Let’s be concise: repeating the same group of ingredients in every product you use is completely unnecessary and is only a selling point for the product line. A good mix of active and plant-based extracts spaced throughout the day gives your skin exactly what it needs, without ever overloading your skin.


Whoa! We just covered a lot. Got any questions? I’m here for you! Leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer to the best of my ability. Skincare product labels are tricky, but with a little bit of education—and some practice—you’ll be an expert in no time!

*Blog photo by The Indie Shelf.

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