It can't accurately determine whether or not a formula will work on your skin.
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When researching a new beauty product, one of the first things we do is look at its ingredient list. What, if anything, does this long collection of scientific jargon really tell us? Many of us use this list to help assess whether or not a formula can meet our needs, but according to cosmetic chemist and FanLoveBeauty founder Ginger King and board-certified dermatologist and beauty chemist Alexis Stephens, MD, this isn't the best way to determine a product's efficacy.

woman reading ingredients list on lotion bottle
Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

Ingredient lists offer a limited amount of information.

An ingredient list outlines the active and inactive agents in a product, says Dr. Stephens; you should use it to make informed decisions on the formula's safety and efficacy (and to identify and avoid any known allergens). Those active ingredients, which have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, should have their functions and concentrations outlined on the packaging, she adds. As for the list itself? King explains that the first five ingredients listed are in the order of formulaic concentration. After that fifth one, she says, the brand can list ingredients by any order, followed by preservatives, fragrance, and dyes. The main reason why it's critical to read an ingredient list with a grain of salt? "It does not tell you how well one ingredient will interact with another," stresses Dr. Stephens, who ultimately recommends "choosing products formulated and tested by reputable brands" instead of making beauty-related decisions by way of a list.

Trying (or patch testing) the product is the only way to know if it works.

There's no way to truly know if a product will improve your complexion unless you physically try it for at least two weeks, says King (most of the clinical research you see products advertise are performed in four weeks' time, she notes). "The best way to know if a product will work on your skin is to use it with consistency," adds Dr. Stephens. The same can be said of the inverse—the ingredients that don't benefit your skin, and lead to irritation or allergies, will often take around the same amount of time to identify. To minimize irritation, Dr. Stephens recommends starting with a small patch test to make sure the product won't cause sensitivity before you apply the product all over your face or body.

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