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Learning how to read skincare labels

Learning how to read skincare labels
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Learning how to read skincare labels can be pretty challenging. What does it all mean?

There can be a few misleading statements on skincare product packaging that leads you to think something about a product that has no basis in science or reality. That usually includes what the product may do for you or fancy, beautiful-sounding ingredients.

Marketing language is not science and it is tricky. Terms that manufacturers use to sell face cream, cleansers and ‘anti-wrinkle’ products is very loose and largely unregulated, particularly in the United States where you can sell people sawdust and call it stardust. If you are buying products online, choose suppliers and brands you know and trust, from countries that have strict laws regarding claims made on cosmetics. Europe tends to keep its suppliers honest, and Australia has the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) which keeps everyone in line.

‘For sensitive skin’, as an example, is a term that is unregulated and doesn’t mean your skin won’t react. It just means, probably, that there are fewer problematic ingredients in the product, though this doesn’t have to be true. Another goodie is ‘natural’ or ‘from nature’ or ‘all-natural ingredients’, since natural substances are not always either of a high quality or non irritants, and there may not be much of it in the product to do anything.

Fragrances can still be used even if a product says ‘unscented’, since fragrance chemicals can be used for another purpose, like moisturising, rather than for scent. The existing odour of a product might be fairly off putting, so adding another ‘useful’ ingredient in to make it smell better is common. Another trick can be saying something is preservative free, when actually a fragrance acts as a preservative as well as a scent. Another fragrance trick is to make a product smell like food that acts on our brain chemistry in a similar way to foods we associate with these odours – chocolate, vanilla, strawberry shortcake…

Ingredients are listed in the order of the largest to smallest ratio in the product, with water typically at the top of the list. Usually you’ll find that the marketing spin on a product uses some extract of something or other, but it tends to be listed at the end, meaning there isn’t much of that ingredient actually in the product. Sometimes this doesn’t matter – some ingredients are strong – but often the marketing spin unfairly targets this ingredient, showing off about it’s healing or cleansing or moisturising abilities. An active ingredient often only needs to be .5 per cent of the final product to be effective, but it’s impossible to know by labelling because usually they don’t say.

‘Dermatologically tested’ doesn’t mean dermatologically favoured or endorsed. It means it has been tested. That’s all.

Products can do multiple jobs without saying so on the label, so some products may be good for managing certain skin conditions, but can’t aren’t tested by the FDA. For example acne treatments must be FDA approved, but that doesn’t mean that many products are good for acne-prone skin. Typically you can check for ingredients here like salicylic acid, and the word ‘clarifying’.

Oils also go rancid quickly, especially high quality essential oils, which renders them useless for your skin and in fact potentially damaging. Look for cold-pressed oils which last longer and store your oils in dark glass in a cupboard. Light, heat and oxygen degrade oil.

Last but not least, don’t use a product that is past its expiry date – ingredients go rancid over time, especially those containing oils. Additionally, there is not just a use-by date, but a use-by-after-opening date. This is usually on the label somewhere if it exists.

Storage matters too. Don’t leave your skincare products in a hot car or in direct sunlight in the bathroom.

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