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Ingredient Labels Explained

Robert Manzo 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.

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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.


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Decoding Label Lingo









Cyclomethicone, Polysilicone-11

Squalane, Isohexadecane

Silicones: slip and feel
Dimethicone: moisturizer
“anes” are slip agents


Octisalate: sunscreen
Palmitate: emollient

Sunscreens are UV-inhibitors
Emollients provide lubricity

Polymer, gum, carbomer

Xanthan gum, carbomer, celluose


“diols”, “ols”

Propylene glycol, butylene glycol


Glycerin, dimethicone, petrolatum, hyaluronate

Glycerin, hyaluronate: humectants
Dimethicone, petrolatum: occlusives

Humectants: attract water
Occulsives: trap water

Parabens, ethanol, urea

Methylparaben, phenoxyethanol,
diazolidinyl urea


PEG-30, polysorbate-20

PEG-100 stearate
PEG-40 sorbitan peroleate
PEG-200 hydrogenated glyceryl palmate

Emulsifiers: bring water-soluble and -insoluble ingredients together

Titanium dioxide, mica

Titanium dioxide, mica

Diffusing pigments, color additives


Disodium EDTA, butylated hydroxytoluene

Product stabilizers

Peptides, yeast extracts, ascorbic acid, retinoids, caffeine, bisabolol, botanicals

Peptides, yeast extracts, ascorbic acid, retinoids, caffeine, bisabolol, botanicals

Functional/active ingredients

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