A Guide to Dissecting Your Skincare Product Labels

Updated 12/17/18

Beauty product labels can be confusing—and that's putting it mildly. There are so many words, illustrations, and marketing jargon to wade through. Then there are the ingredients. We know they're important, but how can we know what each ingredient is, what it does, and if it's good for our skin? It's tough, but education is paramount, especially when it comes to spending your hard-earned money on products meant to help your skin look its best and stay healthy.

With that in mind, we reached out to a few of the industry's top experts, including estheticians, dermatologists, authors, and skincare founders for their takes. We set out to find the easiest and most thorough answers to our burning skincare questions and exactly what we should be looking for when we pick up a product. Each one spelled it all out for us—the science, the ingredients, and vital things to keep in mind before purchasing.

Below, find their sage advice.

The Five Most Important Things to Look for on a Label:

1. Ingredients are listed from highest to lowest concentration, says Jacqueline Schaffer, an anti-aging expert, best-selling author, and founder of vegan skincare brand Schique. This means if a really great ingredient is listed at the bottom, you're not going to get much benefit from it. This happens a lot with less expensive products that boast rose-related benefits (anti-aging, hydration), as pure rose and rose oil are pricier ingredients. It works the opposite way as well. If an ingredient you're meant to be wary of (like alcohol) is listed within the first three ingredients, opt for another product.

2. The open-jar symbol represents how long the product is good for once it's opened. "Look for the numbers 6M, 12M, 24M, and so on," suggests Schaffer. The M stands for months. Use those numbers as a guide for when to replace your product. If it's expired, for example, any oil ingredients (the spreading agents) will always rise to the top, so if you continue to use it, you may be applying a higher concentration of potentially pore-clogging oil to your skin. And if your product comes in a pot (or any packaging that requires using your fingers to get the formula out), bacteria can transfer easily, and you run the risk of adding more bacteria to your skin.

Following expiration dates is important with skincare and makeup.

3. The expiration date is attached to the batch or lot number which is located at the bottom of the bottle, notes Schaffer. Familiarize yourself with each product label before purchasing.

4. If you're interested in a plant-based product, it will say so on the label. "Vegan skincare is made from plant-based ingredients to help to nourish, hydrate, and protect your skin without any harsh chemicals," offers Schaffer. "Natural, vegan skincare ingredients can provide effectiveness on par with other products; you just have to find them," she says. "A combination of our complexes, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and botanical extracts can help rejuvenate the skin and give you a healthy glow."

5. Look for a bunny on the label to indicate the product is cruelty-free. "These are much gentler on the skin, rather than harsh, artificial chemical ingredients that are usually found in commercial skin care products," says Schaffer. "And because they tend to be gentler on the skin, these products can be excellent choices for people with chronic skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis," says Schaffer.

The Five Ingredients That Look "Scary" but Are Actually Good for You: 

1. Tocopherol. This is vitamin E, which moisturizes and hydrates your skin. "Vitamin E keeps lipids fresh in your skin," explains celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau. This helps to keep your skin's protective barrier intact. Doing this can help seal up little cracks created in the skin's barrier that can cause moisture to escape and leave the skin feeling tight and dry," she explains. As such, vitamin E allows for the long-lasting moisture retention between your skin cells. According to Rouleau, it doles out up to 16 hours of hydration.

Vitamin E offers antioxidant (fat-soluble) benefits as well; it helps neutralize harmful free radicals and, due to its antioxidant benefit, can discourage sebum (oil) oxidation to prevent blackheads.

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2. Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7. These are regenerating peptides that stimulate collagen production, as well as suppress the body’s acute inflammatory response.

3. Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate. This ingredient is vitamin C, which, when applied topically, brightens dull skin, evens discoloration, stimulates collagen production, and wards off wrinkles. Plus, it’s a powerful antioxidant, meaning it fights free radicals and is a core ingredient in many antipollution skincare formulas. According to Rouleau, free radicals are unstable electrons that attack our healthy cells, causing visible signs of aging. "It is widely believed by scientists around the world that one of the main reasons we age is because unstable electrons in molecules (called free radicals) attack healthy cells and change their composition, which causes them to no longer function the way normal, younger cells do,” she explains.

Vitamin C helps curb that from happening.

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4. Ferulic acid. "Ferulic acid is an antioxidant made from the seeds of apples and oranges, which helps with anti-aging," says Schaffer. It combines best with vitamin C (working synergistically to increase potency and efficacy) to fight the aforementioned free-radical damage. 

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5. Caprylic glycerides. These stable fatty acids are derived from a specific part of the coconut and help your skin stay moisturized and smooth.

The Five Things You Should Avoid:

1. Parabens (including methylparabens, propylparabens, and butylparabens). One of the oldest forms of modern cosmetic preservatives, parabens have been used since the ’30s to help keep active ingredients stable, effective, and free from harmful bacteria growth. However, scientist Philippa Darbre published a research paper that found parabens in breast cancer tissue samples. While the evidence couldn't conclusively prove the link between paraben use and increased cancer risk, it sparked controversy and did prove it can pass through into your body, which can disrupt your hormones.

According to EU and FDA regulations, parabens are considered safe to use, but most experts suggest you avoid them.

2. Sulfates (including sodium laureth sulfates, alkylbenzene sulfonate, sodium cocoyl sarcosinate). "Sulfates are the detergents responsible for the super-sudsy lather you get out of most shampoos," explains celebrity hairstylist Michelle Cleveland. To get into the nitty-gritty, sulfates (which are a type of surfactant) attract water and oil, which allows soaps, shampoos, cleansers, and body washes to separate dirt and oil from your skin. While there's no evidence to support that sulfates cause cancer, they can irritate your skin.

Since they're meant to remove dirt and oil, they strip the healthy oils from your skin, leaving it dry and unbalanced.

3. Artificial fragrances and dyes. Artificial fragrances and dyes can cause skin irritation, even for those who don't typically deal with sensitive or redness-prone skin. And while companies include these in their products to make the color and scent more pleasing for a consumer, applying them to your skin is doing a disservice to it.

4. Layering too many acids with vitamin C. "These are great ingredients in the right concentration," says Danuta Mieloch, the head esthetician at Rescue Spa. "Applying too many at once is a good way to burn your skin," she says. If you chemically exfoliate too much (which is what each acid does with the exception of hyaluronic acid, which is purely hydrating), it will have a compounding effect and inflame your skin.

5. Hydroquinone. According to David Shafer, MD, FACS, "Hydroquinone is a chemical compound discovered in the early 1800s, which was used in everything from skincare to photo developing. The chemical interacts with the melanin-producing cells in the skin, decreasing the production of pigment." While it effectively (though temporarily) decreases dark spots, it may also lighten the surrounding skin as well. This creates "halo spots," or white spots, on your skin.

These Are the Best Ingredients for Your Skin Type: 

1. Dry and sensitive skin. "Dry and sensitive skin needs ingredients that offer higher concentrations of emollients and humectants like jojoba oil and shea butter," says Schaffer. An emollient's function is to soften and soothe your skin. "Oils and plant butters act as natural emollients on the skin," adds Schaffer, noting, "Shea butter not only hydrates the skin but calms down redness and increases collagen production."

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2. Oily and combination skin. "These skin types need ingredients that act as low barrier repair, like hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5," says Schaffer. "Beta hydroxy acid is a beauty weapon included in many products to target unwanted bacteria, which can cause excess oil production and breakouts," she says. You can find this ingredient in face washes, scrubs, and moisturizers.

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3. Acne-prone skin. If you're acne-prone, opt for products with ingredients high in antioxidants and salicylic acid. "Salicylic acid is antibacterial and contains the same anti-inflammatory ingredients as aspirin," says Schaffer. "It works inside your pores to loosen clogs and kill acne-causing bacteria. This is ideal for those who want to clear up blackheads and whiteheads. Don’t forget to use in moderation, though, because it can cause mild stinging and skin irritation," says Schaffer. 

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Below, find a handy cheat sheet for all the information you need.

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