Ingredient Lists and How to Demystify Them

Jun. 28
Learn how to quickly choose your care product based on its listed ingredients
The Trouble with Analyzing Ingredient Lists
As an amateur without any cosmetic education in your past, reading from an ingredient list, let alone understanding it, can be difficult. It's understandable for a few good reasons.
Scientific names are complex.
You won’t always be able to tell right away what an ingredient is from its scientific name alone unless you've had some memorization practice. Take, for instance, the name Glycyrrhiza glabra. Could you tell me that it's the scientific name for Licorice Root? All ingredients have a scientific name, and it isn’t always easy to remember such complex naming conventions. However, you will always see them because it is a requirement by the FDA to have all ingredients used in a cosmetic product listed by their common (which means scientific) names.
The list can be too long.
It is one thing to have a name that you don't understand listed as an ingredient in a product because you can easily look it up. The issue arises when you happen upon a product with a list of ingredients that could take you forever to look up. There isn't always time to look up every single ingredient, especially in a shop where there are so many products to choose from in the first place. 
Natural or Synthetic Ingredients; Which is Which?
Although it may seem like the general consensus is that natural ingredients are better than artificially manufactured ones, good and bad ingredients exist in natural and synthetic forms. FDA Office of Cosmetics and Colors Director Dr. Linda Katz states that people shouldn’t be quick to assume that natural ingredients are safer than their chemical counterparts. In fact, many natural ingredients are much harder to protect from contamination than synthetic ones. Natural is not always better.
Breaking Down your Ingredient List
There is an order to concentration.
No matter how bulky an ingredient list is, FDA laws require that everything in it be listed in descending order of concentration. For your specific skin concern, you want ingredients that deal with the issue at the top of the list, because higher concentrations mean higher potency. This trick also helps you disqualify a product if one of its top ingredients is something that your skin is allergic or reacts badly to.
There are scientific names you'll come across very often.
Here's where you'll need to do a bit of research beforehand. Once again, depending on your skin concern, understand what ingredients work best to resolve it, by their scientific names. Here are some common names that you’ll likely come across in skin or hair care products.
  • Sodium Hyaluronate/Hyaluronic Acid: potent skin hydrators.
  • Any oil: helps skin with moisture, makes hair stronger and less prone to breakage.
  • Alpha Hydroxy Acid (Glycolic or Lactic): correct uneven skin tone and reduce wrinkles.
  • Salicylic Acid: treats acne and soothes irritation.
  • Panthenol/Vitamin B5: in shampoos, it improves hair volume.
There are resources available where you can look up information on any ingredient used in a product, and having them on hand to help you understand ingredients makes it easy to spot them by their scientific names.
Understand the difference between active and inactive ingredients
The FDA defines an “active ingredient” as a component that has a pharmacological effect on the body in a medical treatment product. For example, salicylic acid is an active ingredient in medicinal acne products because the FDA recognizes its ability to relieve acne in certain specific concentrations.
Inactive ingredients generally have no pharmacological effect on the body, but this doesn’t mean that they have no effect at all. They are simply not recognized as drugs having medicinal effects by the FDA, but they can still affect you in a way.  The best example is an exfoliating product micro-sized pumice crystals. The Pumice isn’t an active ingredient, but its abrasive nature affects the skin by digging out dead skin and impurities when you use it. In fact, in a product that isn’t intended for medicinal use, you will often see no listing of active or inactive ingredients at all.
Once you know what to look for and how to look for it, finding the right product for any of your care routines should be a walk in the park. 
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