Why you should be reading your skin care labels

January 24, 2019

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You already know the importance of reading your food labels, but have you ever thought to take more than a cautionary glance at the labels on your skin care and cosmetic products? With the wordy ingredients and half-written "guarantees," deciphering the true meaning of what's on these labels can be a daunting task — but the information is important.

A label can tell you everything from what the product is intended to do and who it's intended to work for, to what ingredients are involved and how to most effectively use it. If you know where to look and what to look for, it can tell you whether the product may help you or potentially harm you. Understanding how to read a skin care label will provide you with knowledge you need to make informed decisions about what you put in and on your body’s largest organ.

It's important to recognize that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate certain words and phrases that are frequently seen on skin care labels. For example, terms like "hypoallergenic," "fragrance-free," or "for sensitive skin" are arbitrary marketing terms, legally speaking. In other words, they are not a guarantee that the product contains no irritants, or that it will be safe and effective on highly sensitive skin. 

For example, fragrance-free can simply mean that any fragrant ingredients included are primarily being used for purposes other than scent, and "unscented" products often have fragrance chemicals whose scents are just masked by stronger chemicals. This can be frustrating, but by learning to read the ingredients list, you can determine which of these claims are accurate and how this product will likely perform for your skin. Look for words like:
  • Parfum
  • Perfume
  • Fragrance
  • Flavor
  • Essential oils
  • Aroma

If the label has a long list of chemical components you don’t recognize, contact the manufacturer and ask them if the products contains fragrance.

The most important thing to understand about the ingredients list is that the ingredients are always written in order of their concentrations, except for those that make up less than 1% of the formula, which will be listed at the end in whichever order the manufacturer chooses. That being said, ingredients listed near the end can still play some of the most active roles, as certain ingredients are potent in even small quantities.

If you're intimidated by the long Latin names or chemical terms, you'll be happy to know that labels will often show the more common ingredient name immediately following its scientific name in parentheses. And if you're not finding the answers you need on the label, a quick Google search should answer any questions you may have.

Picking a skin care product isn't always as simple as looking for certain ingredients and avoiding others, as each person has different sensitivities, but a little research can tell you which ones will work best with your skin type, and which could potentially be irritating or could cause new issues. For example, if you're acne-prone, don't just reach for products that claim to be oil-free, as they can still be pore-clogging without oil-based ingredients. Instead, research the active ingredients of products you're interested in using to ensure that they won't further irritate your skin and clog your pores. If you have sensitive skin, you'll also want to avoid products with added fragrances or allergens, but you may want to do additional research beyond grabbing a "fragrance-free" cleanser. The ingredients will always reveal what's really at work in a product and will be the most accurate indication of which claims you can trust.

In addition to the ingredients list, the label also has information on the shelf-life of the product. The expiration date on skin care products is often indicated by either a "Best Before End" (BBE) date, occasionally represented by an hourglass symbol, or a "Period After Opening" date, typically seen as a jar icon along with an amount of time, like "6M," meaning 6 months. The label should also contain usage and storage instructions, which can help you squeeze the most benefit out of your product.

For answers about which products will work best with your skin, or which ingredients you should seek or avoid, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist to help you navigate your skin care options.

Find a Swedish dermatologist in our provider directory, and learn more about our full range of dermatology services

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

Topics: Services, Wellness