A Guide to Dissecting Your Skincare Product Labels

woman washing hands

Stocksy / Unsplash

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.

"The most important things to look for on a beauty product label can vary from person to person," says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. "People prioritize many different aspects of what they require in their products, and the list is ever-growing. What I personally have been looking for includes: cruelty-free products, non-comedogenic products, and products that are environmentally sustainable." For example, Origins uses sustainable plant, earth, and sea-based ingredients in their products. If natural and/or sustainable formulas are important to you, look for brands that call that out.

Below, find more sage advice.

Important Things to Look for on a Label

The Order of Ingredients

  • 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. "Typically only the top 'active ingredients' are required to disclose percentages," explains Dr. Rachel Nazarian, tktk. "So," she continues, "because everything else on the ingredient label is simply listed in order of concentration, look for the ingredient you want to be closer to the beginning of the list, rather than near the end. This works the opposite way as well. If an ingredient that doesn't mesh well with your skin is listed within the first three ingredients, opt for another product.

Meet the Expert

  • Jacqueline Schaffer, M.D., attained her medical degree after learning of the often harsh ingredients found in beauty and skincare products. Schaffer wrote a guide to skincare, titled Irresistible You, and developed her own a natural skincare product line, Schique.
  • Dr. Rachel Nazarian, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. She specializes in cosmetic treatments, skin cancer, and dermatologic surgery.
  • Renée Rouleau is a celebrity esthetician based in Austin, TX. She is also the founder and creator of her eponymous skincare line.

Symbols

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • If you're interested in a vegan and/or cruelty-free product, it'll say so on the label. "There are many unofficial 'cruelty free' symbols that may represent the company’s decision to not use animal testing," says Nazarian. "But," she says, "many of these labels are not government regulated or verified by accredited third parties—you have to trust what the company is marketing without true confirmation. Some organizations such as PETA or Leaping Bunny have their own seal, which often places their name on symbol, and gives more standardization to the auditing process of the product and company." Nazarian continues, "The various vegan symbols face a similar conundrum; some are more official, but they're are often unverified externally and there are many.
  • To keep things simple, shop at stores that do a lot of the investigative work for you and have similar standards to your own for skincare. "Companies like Sephora allow you to shop and filter by many factors," Nazarian explains.

Ingredients That Look Confusing, Explained 

  • 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.
  • Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7: These are regenerating peptides that stimulate collagen production, as well as suppress the body’s acute inflammatory response.
  • 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.
  • Ferulic acid: "Ferulic acid is an antioxidant made from the seeds of apples and oranges, which helps with anti-aging," says Schaffer. It is often combined with vitamin C (meant to synergistically increase potency and efficacy) to fight the aforementioned free-radical damage. 
  • Caprylic glycerides: These stable fatty acids are derived from a specific part of the coconut and help your skin stay moisturized and smooth.

Ingredients That May Cause Irritation

  • 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 might irritate sensitive skin, since they're meant to strip dirt and oil from skin.
  • Essential Oils: Allergic reactions to essential oils are common. If there are essential oils in your product, make sure to try a patch test first and monitor for signs of irritation before applying elsewhere.
  • 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. If your product includes fragrance, do a patch test on your skin before applying it to larger areas of your face and/or body.
  • 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 may have a compounding effect and inflame your skin.
  • 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.

Ingredients for Your Skin Type 

  • 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." Glycerin and ceramides are also really great for dry and sensitive skin types.
  • 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.
  • 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.
Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Resende DISP, Ferreira MS, Sousa-Lobo JM, Sousa E, Almeida IF. Usage of Synthetic Peptides in Cosmetics for Sensitive SkinPharmaceuticals (Basel). 2021;14(8):702. doi:10.3390/ph14080702

  2. Telang PS. Vitamin C in DermatologyIndian Dermatol Online J. 2013;4(2):143-146. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.110593

  3. Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-inflammatory and skin barrier repair effects of topical application of some plant oilsInt J Mol Sci. 2017;19(1):70. doi:10.3390/ijms19010070

  4. Zukiewicz-Sobczak WA, Adamczuk P, Wróblewska P, et al. Allergy to Selected Cosmetic IngredientsPostepy Dermatol Alergol. 2013;30(5):307-310. doi:10.5114/pdia.2013.38360

  5. Jegasothy SM, Zabolotniaia V, Bielfeldt S. Efficacy of a New Topical Nano-hyaluronic Acid in HumansJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(3):27-29.

  6. Davis EC, Callender VD. Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation: A Review of the Epidemiology, Clinical Features, and Treatment Options in Skin of ColorJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010;3(7):20-31.

Your Guide to Conscious Beauty

Related Stories