Cosmetic ingredient labels, especially when they are really long and full of scary-sounding names, can be tricky to decipher. But doing so is important to make sure we choose the right products for our skin type. That’s because the performance of a product depends on the ingredients it contains and the concentrations at which they are used.
Some ingredients that are beneficial for skin when used in high amounts, for instance, can do nothing if they are included only in trace amounts, while comedogenic ingredients may not turn your face into a war zone after all if their concentration is small. But how do you estimate how much of an ingredient is in a product? It’s not an easy task, but there are a few guidelines that will help you:
1. Order of ingredients
On the labels, ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration. Thus, those that make up most of the product go first and, at the bottom, you can usually find those used in minuscule amounts. The first ingredient, is, usually, the vehicle, which helps to deliver the active ingredients in the skin. In most products, that’s water. However, some ingredients can be listed on the label in a different way, as we’re about to see below.
2. Active ingredients may be listed separately
Active ingredients, ie the ingredients that do the actual work. can be listed separately on the label. But this doesn’t mean they are present in the highest concentration. Some active ingredients can, for instance, be present at small doses and still be able to do their job well. A lot of sunscreen labels follow this alternative way of listing active ingredients.
3. Ingredients present in 1% or less concentration may be listed in any order
Any ingredient that is used in concentrations of 1% or less can be listed in any order. The only requirement is that they are listed after those present in higher amounts. This means that some plant extracts or vitamins can be present at 0.5% concentrations and still be listed higher than a preservative used at 1%! Unfortunately, the label doesn’t indicate where the descending order of ingredient stops being followed and the random one begins.
4. Filler ingredients
A way to figure out at what point the list starts to follow a random order is to look for what the Beauty Brains call “filler ingredients”. These are ingredients that don’t really have any other function in the product other than attracting consumers and supporting the marketing story. That’s the case with a lot of natural extracts, which are used by marketers to make the products appear greener and safer, even though, at the low concentrations at which they are used, they don’t really provide any benefit to the skin.
These are usually used in 1% or less amounts, so, in most cases, they and any ingredients after them, may be listed randomly. The same can be said for fragrances. They are never used in concentrations higher than 3%, so anything that comes after them is often present in such small amounts as to allow them to be listed randomly. Although this method gives us a good indication, it’s important to remember that it’s not foolproof. Besides, just because an ingredient is present in small amounts, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. Retinol is mostly used at 0.025% concentrations that are, however, high enough to allow it to work properly.
5. The first five
Instead, it’s to the first five ingredients that you should pay the most attention, as these are the ones that make up most of the product and that allow it to work they way it is supposed to. The first ingredient, (water in most products), is usually present at 75-95% concentrations, and the following four (surfactants in cleansers and shampoos, silicones in conditioners, humectants in moisturizers etc) between 5% and 3%. After these, you’ll usually start to find “fillers”, preservatives, thickeners and those ingredient that make the product feel and look the way it does, but don’t really provide much benefit to the skin. Of course these amounts are only given as an indication. There can be exception to this rule and, as we’ve seen, some active ingredients can work well in small amounts too.
Trying to estimate the amount of ingredients present in a product is no easy task as there as so many variables to consider, but by following the guidelines above, and keeping up with the latest findings in cosmetic research to learn at what concentrations ingredients are effective, you will be able to get a good, general idea of the quantity used.
Do you know any other tips to figure out the concentration of an ingredient in a cosmetic product?