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How To Read A Skincare Ingredient Label Like A Pro

BY Love, Indus | PUBLISHED ON September 22, 2022

What do all those ingredients actually mean?

The beauty market operates under very specific laws and thankfully, declaring the ingredient list is one of them. But even if you have access to the list, how does a regular consumer decipher it? Some basic knowledge of key terms and rules will help you understand your products better giving you a whole new perspective of your favorite brands.

First things first: filter out the extraneous

Once you turn the package over, a long list of unfamiliar ingredients in minuscule font might look rather intimidating. The first thing to filter out when learning how to read skincare ingredients is surplus ingredients and fillers – things that add volume and not much else. Typical examples include ethanolamines, dyes, parabens, PEGs (polyethylene glycols), artificial fragrances and colors. Most of these can irritate sensitive skin and some, such as PEGs, may have negative health consequences.

Brands often claim to be clean/plant-based and/or conscious, but understanding what that means is crucial to making an informed decision, as this can be a marketing ploy with no real substance to back up the claim.

One other ingredient to keep an eye out for is petroleum jelly. This hydrocarbon based ingredient is cheap and often used in place of better, but more expensive ingredients like shea butter (which appears on labels as “Butyrospermum Parkii Butter”) or coconut oil/butter (“Cocos Nucifera Seed Butter”).

Next: Segment the ingredient list

To better understand the ingredient list, segment it. Remember - ingredients in every product are listed in the decreasing order of percent composition. Even if the product has a long list of ingredients, the first third has the highest concentration - it’s not atypical for them to make up 90% of the product. These ingredients are primarily responsible for the way a specific product feels and reacts on your skin and/ or how the remaining actives are effectively delivered into the skin.

A note on water - you might see water/aqua/eau at, or near the top of the list. Water is an excellent solvent and a great choice especially when compared to harsher alternatives such as alcohol, oils, silicones etc.

The middle third of ingredients are usually responsible for the stability and texture of the product. Typically, they make up anywhere from 1% to 10% of the final product. The final third usually compromises all ingredients with less than 1% concentration. Note that ingredients that makes up less than 1% of the final product, can be listed on the label in any order.

Ingredient label
Love, Indus

Finally: Keep an eye on that last third

Track what’s in and what isn’t in that final third. As mentioned, these ingredients are typically ones that make up less than 1% of the final product.

Preservatives are critical ingredients that keep products safe from mold, bacteria and other microorganisms. Common preservatives include aldehydes (e.g. formaldehyde), parabens, sodium benzoate and phenoxyethanol. Those first two are best avoided while the latter two are extremely safe, although you generally don’t want them in concentrations above 1% - or in other words – listed in the first two thirds of the ingredient list.

A lot of brands highlight their “hero” ingredients – things that the brands claim make their products unique, highly efficacious or both. If those hero ingredients are way down the ingredient list, then there’s a good chance they make up less than 1% of the final product and you need to ask yourself (and the brand) whether these ingredients actually make a difference or just make good advertising copy.

It takes some time, but with practice and the widely available free resources (we like the EWG Skin Deep database) you’ll soon be able to determine if a product has the composition to fulfil its claims.

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