How to Properly Read a Beauty Product's Ingredient List

Start at the very beginning—the first few ingredients are the most important.

woman reading beauty product ingredients on back of bottle
Photo: Jacob Wackerhausen / Getty Images

Whether you're on the hunt for a drugstore moisturizer or luxury facial oil, the first thing you need to do is look at the product's ingredient list. Sure, these indexes are complicated and confusing—and often written in science-speak—but learning how to decipher them can make all the difference to your skin. "Reading labels is just as important for skin care products as it is for food," explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shari Marchbein. "It helps us to identify exactly which ingredients are present and the quality and concentration of those ingredients." Ahead, we enlisted the expertise of two dermatologists who explained, once and for all, how to understand a beauty product's ingredient list.

The first few ingredients are the most important.

Ingredients are always listed in descending order of concentration, with the most prominent additives featured first. Typically, the first five ingredients have the highest percentages and can determine the overall performance of the product. This is a tried-and-true way to separate the standout formulas from the so-so: If an effective ingredient is at the bottom of the list, it's likely you won't reap its benefits.

Be prepared to see some Latin.

Have you ever struggled to read or pronounce the words printed on the back of product's box? That's because many ingredients are listed under their scientific names—which are often in Latin. For example, butyrospermum parkii is the botanical name for shea, a common ingredient found in moisturizers. Luckily, many companies will often show the ingredient's common moniker in parentheses.

Look for perfumes or fragrances.

Beauty and skincare products will often list "perfume" or "fragrance" as one of their ingredients. And while a scent can add to the overall allure of a product, it can also aggravate and irritate certain skin types. If your skin is sensitive or redness-prone, it's best to skip brands that add perfumes to their formulas. "Using fragrance-free products are most important for are those with sensitive or eczema-prone skin or those with multiple allergies," adds Dr. Marchbein.

Identify the ingredients best for your skin.

"If you are sensitive, you know how hard it is to find products that you can not only tolerate, but that feel good on your skin," says Dr. Marchbein who recommends looking to hyaluronic acid, glycerin, dimethicone, petrolatum, and ceramides to treat dry, hyper-reactive skin. For those who experience excess oil, stick to oil-free or non-comedogenic formulas, as those with occlusives may intensify breakouts. Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, adapalene, benzoyl peroxide, and silymarin are best for those with acne-prone complexions.

And if you fall somewhere in the middle? "If you have combination skin, look for humectant ingredients in moisturizers, like glycerin or hyaluronic acid. They act like sponges to hydrate and plump the skin and are effective enough for dry areas without weighing down oil-prone areas of the face," advises board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zechnier.

Keep an eye open for potential interactions.

Once you're familiar with the different types of ingredients found on beauty and skin care labels, it's that much easier to identify which products shouldn't be layered together. "You want to avoid combining products that may inactivate each other," says Dr. Zeichner. "For example, vitamin C and retinol are both temperamental ingredients that do not play nicely in the sandbox with others."

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