The No-Nonsense A-Z Guide to Understanding Skincare Labels

The No-Nonsense A-Z Guide to Understanding Skincare Labels

The beauty industry has evolved into a cesspool of misinformation. Using tactics found in every marketer's playbook, beauty brands strive to make themselves different and better than their fellow competitors. But some brands do it in a misleading way such as demonising ingredients used by their competitors with scary-sounding words like "toxic" and "comedogenic", playing “free-from” cards, celebrity endorsements, and many more. And that's a problem.

Perhaps you may realise by now why you’re confused by the skincare options out there. Sadly, this is the current state of the beauty industry. But with this no-nonsense guide, you'll never be misled by product label claims again — ever. 

Ampoule — 

Watery serums encased in a glass bottle as large as your finger, sold at a premium markup. The packaging is designed to be single-use which is not exactly environmentally-friendly. Technically, it should be more potent than a serum in terms of active content. In most cases, however, you wouldn’t know the percentage of actives in the formula unless stated on the label. So it’s possible that it may be less potent than a serum, which is just plain evil since you’re paying so much for one set.

Chemical-free—

A meaningless claim because everything is a chemical.

Cleanser — 

Formula that contains cleansing agents called surfactants. Usually water or oil-based. Either way, you don’t need both for double cleansing. Just one good cleanser would do and make sure there's no residue (e.g. makeup, oil, grime) left on your face.

“Cool ingredient name” Complex —

 Usually implies a blend of active ingredients.

Cosmeceutical —

 Pharmaceutical-grade cosmetic. However, there are no objective standards for this term and its use is also not regulated. This means that brands from aesthetic clinics or medical spas can simply put this label for marketing purposes. Therefore, we shouldn’t be simply be misled by this label and should further inspect the ingredients list.

Cruelty-free—

No animal testing is conducted. Most parts of the world except China do not conduct animal testing with cosmetic products. The Cosmetics Directive set by the EU has banned animal testing a long time ago and a lot of regulatory agencies around the world have followed suit. But it can mean that by using this claim, the brand has pledged not to sell their products in countries that require animal testing.

Dermatologist-recommended — 

Basically, this means they’ve solicited a random dermatologist to put an approval stamp on it. However, its use is unregulated and so it’s just a marketing term. Although some good formulas may have this label, the label is not a good indicator of good formulations.

Essence — 

A toner-like serum. Marketing term used to describe texture of the product.

Fragrance-free —

Fragrance usually refers to either essential oils or synthetic fragrance. They are usually added in small amounts (like 0.05%), so it's pretty unlikely that it'll cause skin irritation unless your skin is very sensitive. There are some loopholes where brands use ingredients that have a scent but are not added because of their scent. For example, a lotion made with a fragrant plant oil can be labelled fragrance-free due to the oil being used as an emollient. If you're still concerned, then the foolproof way to avoid this is to check the ingredients list and ensure that it doesn’t contain the word "parfum", "fragrance" or 26 allergens listed in this EU document.

Free from (scary-sounding chemical) — 

Parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, you name it. Most of the time, these ingredients are preservatives added in small amounts to protect your formula from harmful microbes like bacteria and yeast, so that you won’t get an infection when using them after a while. These amounts are regulated by governmental agencies like the EU so it’s very unlikely that brands would overdose on such “chemicals” on purpose.

Hypoallergenic — 

No standard definition of this term and its use is not governed by any regulatory agency. The human skin is diverse across individuals and there are many contributing factors like environmental stressors that can cause the skin to change overtime. Allergies reactions like hives can appear out of the bloom. Simply put, there is no product that can guarantee that using it won’t cause allergic reactions.

Ingredients — 

There’s a list usually located at the back of the packaging. There is a global standard for how these ingredients should be arranged and named. This standard is called the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients or INCI for short. The list should be arranged starting from the ingredient with the highest content to the ingredient with the lowest. Any ingredients below 1% can be arranged in any order. Therefore, the first five ingredients are usually the ones we should be concerned about when identifying potent active ingredients, although there are exceptions.

Medical grade — 

Like dermatologist-recommended claims, the use of this term is unregulated and there is no standard definition of medical-grade. Another marketing fluff.

Moisturiser — 

A formula that moisturises and hydrates the skin. Can be as light as a gel or heavy as a balm. Usually do not contain the active ingredients found in a serum, but there may be exceptions. Always check the ingredient list.

Natural—

A subjective term since everything is essentially made up of chemicals. Every brand's definition of natural varies and may not align with your definition of natural. For some, it means that the ingredients are sourced from plants and do not undergo any chemical processing. But most ingredients that you see in gels, lotions and creams you see nowadays undergo some form of chemical processing to carry out their respective function. And there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is that some brands mislead their customers by simply using the natural claim and implying that they are better and safer than synthetics. That is not true.

Non-comedogenic — 

Used to claim that the product won't make your skin breakout. But its use is unregulated and so any brand can stick this on their label. The human skin is diverse and varies across individuals; there's simply no guarantee that using it won't cause breakouts. The concept of comedogenicity is also not fully understood and comedogenicity ratings you see on ingredient analysers are based on previous research conducted on animal skin. In other words, they simply do not reflect real-life conditions.

Pads — 

A stack of cotton pads dipped in serum and enclosed in a jar. Although convenient, they are still environmentally wasteful since they can be only used once.

Preservative-free—

Commonly found in waterless formulas such as balms and certain creams. Technically, this claim is valid because you don’t need a preservative when there is no water in the formula for microbes to grow. However, brands love to put this to imply that preservatives are harmful in order to put down their competitors. Which is problematic because there's nothing wrong with preservatives!

“Name-a-plant” Extract — 

You would usually see this in the front of the label and also at the very last in the ingredient list. This means that it is usually added to the formulation in very small amounts and yet they represent the whole story about the product. It’s a common marketing practice that beauty brands use to create a great product story. In other words, it’s unlikely that the extract is delivering the beneficial effects on your skin. Not surprisingly, you may find certain active ingredients paired with this extract that are high up on the ingredient list, but never mentioned in front label at all.

Sheet mask — 

a sheet of cotton or fiber dipped in a pool of serum and packed in a plastic sheet. In most cases, these materials are hard to recycle and so are likely to end up in landfills and polluting oceans in the long-term. Not to mention breaking the bank over the long term since you’re using it only once. Might as well get a serum and slather all over your face, but your skin wouldn’t be able to absorb that much in the first place.

Serum — 

A formula that ranges from a gel to lotion texture. Usually packaged in small volumes at a premium price. When looking for good serums, check the active ingredients used with their percentages. Otherwise, you risk buying an overpriced but ineffective skincare product.

Synthetic-free—

Another meaningless claim. Brands from the natural/organic/clean-beauty wagons love to use this claim to discredit their synthetic counterparts. Since everything made up of chemicals, being synthetic does not automatically mean harmful to the skin or the environment. And being natural does not mean safe either.

Toner — 

A formula that usually contains 85–90% water. In other words, you’re just buying overpriced water and adding something redundant to your skincare routine. If you’re getting a toner for its exfoliating effects such as those containing AHAs, then make sure that the percentage of AHAs is added in the right amounts for effectiveness. Otherwise, don't bother wasting your money.

Vegan—

If it’s certified vegan, then it means that it does not contain any animal content or by-product.

Vegetarian —

If you’re concerned about using by-products of animal slaughter, then not to worry because almost all skincare ingredients are vegetarian! Few exceptions include acetyl glucosamine which is often derived from shellfish and in rare cases, squalane which can be derived from sharks. But most beauty brands are making the shift to use the plant-derived version of these ingredients (in this case, N-acetyl glucosamine and olive squalane). Thus, it’s very unlikely. However, if you want to be safer than sorry and avoid any animal content altogether, then you should be looking for vegan labels. Even better if they’re certified.

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To wrap up, don’t be misled by what’s written on the front of the label. Always look for the ingredient list and extra points if percentages are listed. Educate yourself on what’s in your skincare by cross-checking information across various sources, instead of relying on ingredient analysers like INCI Decoder. And follow legit skincare influencers.