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Ingredient Labels Explained

By: Robert Manzo
Posted: May 28, 2013, from the June 2013 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
Before & After

Before: After weeks of cleansing with a waxy cleanser, there is no visible occlusion. After: Under UV light imaging, a heavy occlusive layer is visible.

Skin care products are becoming more complex and effective every day. New and advanced ingredients are becoming available more rapidly to cosmetic chemists with higher levels of efficacy and, of course, side effects. Skin care professionals need to be able to understand how to read product ingredient labels and provide answers to their clients regarding what the ingredients are, what dose is in the product, what role the ingredients play and what contraindications should be warranted.

There are basic rules that product manufacturers must comply with in order to list ingredients on their products.

  • Standardized names. Ingredient names must comply with the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) format. The ingredient names are standardized in this format so that all products can be compared to each other easily and for safety reasons.
  • Descending order. Ingredients must be listed in descending order of concentration to 1%. Ingredients below 1% can be listed in any order

Now that the rules are understood, let’s find out how skin care ingredients are used in formulated skin care products. There are a few broad classes of skin care products that will be covered in this article: cleansers, lotion/creams and serums.


Generally, cleansers are a blend of surfactants that help eliminate oil, dirt and makeup from the skin. Cleanser formulas may also contain foam boosters to increase the levels and density of foam, and to stabilize the foam; skin conditioners to make the skin less tight-feeling after washing; waxes—high molecular weight alcohols; preservatives; fragrances; and dyes.

Cleanser realities

1. The most effective cleansers as defined in this article are products that are clear and see-through if you hold them up to light. Cleansers that are cloudy or pearlescent usually contain ingredients such as cetyl alcohol or stearates that tend to deposit on skin while cleansing and can form an occlusive layer on the skin. This occlusion can block other ingredients from penetrating the skin’s surface, which may render them ineffective.

The Skin Care Ingredient Handbook is so much more than an ingredient dictionary. You will learn about cellular functions and skin aging; skin care trends for ethnic skin, scalp and hair products, BB creams, suncreens; active versus functional ingredients, natural, organic, and synthetic ingredients; OTC drugs; INCI names, antioxidants and DNA and how to read labels. Did we mention the newest ingredients are listed?

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